Genre mash-ups are not an uncommon phenomena in film. Sci-fi and horror have proven suitable bedfellows and there is no end to the shuffling and pairing between rom and com and dram. But two vastly different worlds that have yet to collide, mostly due to their diametric opposition to one another, are those of narrative fiction and documentary. How could anyone realistically fuse those two categories in a meaningful way?
Linklater's latest film Boyhood, which recently played first at Sundance, then Austin's SxSW film festival, is a marvel of cinema for a number of reasons. It is a fictional story that unfolds over twelve years, but not in the traditional fashion one might expect. Linklater actually charts his protagonist's progress into manhood one year at a time, filming the movie over an actual twelve-year period with the same actor portraying the eponymous boy. We observe this child grow into a young man right before our very eyes, the experience of which gives the film a distinctly documentary feel.
I got the chance to talk to Linklater during SxSW to find out, how, exactly, he thought this crazy idea would work. Here's what he had to say about the choice to utilize this more true life approach...
"The whole conception was to see someone actually age. Most narratives you have to [cast multiple actors to play the kid over a shorter filming schedule]. I think audiences get used to that. Usually you do the big leaps. In 'Goodfellas,' they’re kids and then they’re just adults."
It wasn't Linklater's intention to make the first narrative/documentary hybrid (narra-doc?), in fact he told us that the twelve-year shooting schedule was an entirely pragmatic, even scientific decision.
"The whole idea grew out of…I’d been thinking about a film about childhood. I was having trouble because I would pick a period of my own childhood that I thought was worth exploring. Then there were all these other parts, but that’s four years later and oh that’s three years…there was a frustration. I was stalled on that. Then it hit me to film a little bit every year. That was the big idea; such an impractical idea, but it solved my problem."
Linklater also talked about the challenge of casting one very young actor for a project that would have him dedicating significant amounts of time throughout the most formative years of his youth.
"That was the big leap. I was casting a guy I met when he was six, but I was really casting the parents. I saw it as an on-going collaboration. We needed the family to get behind this as an artistic undertaking that would be a positive thing in their son’s life. And they got it, they felt that."
One of particular ways Boyhood feels documentary-like is its showcasing of even the most infinitesimal moments of titular youth Mason's life. It sits in these little, seemingly innocuous moments with no concern of moving the film at a traditional narrative's pace; resulting in a nearly three-hour runtime. It creates the fly-on-the-wall aesthetic that often characterizes an engaging slice-of-life doc. It may have been the long-haul format of the film itself that allowed for the featuring of these smaller moments. Linklater put it this way,
"It’s rare that you get a chance in this world to work on something with no real thought or pressure of the end result. Sometimes when you’re working on the film, you already have a release date or expectations. This was just so abstract; it was just in the moment. It was a really fun, free, low-pressure environment. In the indie world, if you don’t have money or much of a means, in this case it’s good to have time. The one asset we did have was time."
Again, it is a scripted narrative, but Linklater admitted that the film evolved as it went along.
"The architecture [of the story] was pretty set. I knew the last shot of the movie by year two. That said, I got to spend every [interval] year thinking about what it would be within that structure. It’s rare you get that chance to kind of keep working on your sculpture. It was the way the film grew too. I would watch it and think about what’s required of the next episode and what comes next. It was all sort of planned out, but I had to kind of feel my way through too."
The influence of true life events over the twelve years was one motivation for the evolution of the script, much in the same way time-spanning documentaries are shaped by the events of the real world.
"It was always going to reflect the culture—presidency, elections, wars—but kind of from the kid’s perspective. I remember just scenes of it from my childhood; what you see on TV, music you might hear on the radio, presidential elections that come and go. Little sign posts, but it’s really from their perspective."
There have been documentaries that have tracked subjects over many years, and narrative films like The Truman Show have featured the central conceit that one man has been watched for many years, though Truman Show really only centers on a few days in his life when you come right down to it.
And yet Boyhood strikes us as the first time that a filmmaker has fused the two divergent film categories into one exquisite hybrid. Linklater, when asked about his decision to shoot on 35mm film all the way through the production, made a statement that sums up Boyhood's habitation in both genres.
"It’s one thing to look through a family album, but there’s something about 35mm film that feels so real. It’s photographed and lit nicely. It’s not like a home video; it feels more official and real in some strange way."
After having interviewed him and screened the film, I can say it feels more than real, it feels like something that might reshape the entire way we think about storytelling and film. Strange, yes. But beautiful.
Have you ever had any crazy ideas for a film? Let me hear them in the comments.