Can't say I've ever seen anything quite like Richard Linklater's Boyhood, the talk of Sundance and making its Austin premiere - at least for those not invited to last week's cast and crew screenings - on a Sunday slate at the Paramount Theatre that also included another big-budget indie partly filmed in this city, David Gordon Green's Joe. Filmed over 12 years, about three days at a time per year, the near-three-hour fictional feature follows Mason (played by Ellar Coltrane) from age seven to 18, or grade one to 12.
There are precedents to the project in the documentary world, notably the Up series, which has followed the lives of fourteen British subjects since 1965, starting when they were seven years old and checking every seven years thereafter. The premise of the film was a Jesuit maxim, "Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man" - something to keep in mind when seeing Boyhood, though Linklater keeps it a little lighter and less fatalistic than the documentary series, giving Mason a chance to actually make some choices for himself after years of moving around central Texas with his single mom (played by Patricia Arquette).
But while I've never seen anything quite like Boyhood in a formal sense, it sure does look like a Linklater movie in terms of story and tone, being sunny and optimistic but not without its rocky moments; driven by dialogue that's often funny and insightful but not in an unrealistic, stagebound way; and studded with specific cultural and geographical touchstones without neglecting the universal potential of its story.
To wit, the most relevant touchstone to the project might be within Linklater's own universe: His Before Sunrise-Before Sunset-Before Midnight series, which is a little more like the Up series in the sense of checking in with a (fictional) relationship every nine years or so from 1995 to 2013. And all four of those films - the Before trilogy and Boyhood - just happen to star Ethan Hawke, who plays Mason's dad, separated from his mom by the time the movie gets going (which leaves an opening for some drunken step-dads to populate Mason's life before he gets to leave home).
Linklater opened the screening by joking that Boyhood "never leaves the borders of Texas, much like me before I was 20 years old." And it's not like the still Austin-based Linklater has gone far; even if much of Boyhood takes place in Houston, Austin certainly features in the film (as a great place to party and experience culture, naturally). He noted in a post-film Q&A that everything about the project was unconventional, from IFC giving him a little money over 12 years to make the film, to the 450-plus person cast and crew (huge for an indie if not a Hollywood epic).
Talking with folks in line before the film, there was a bit of a misconception going around that the film was more of documentary/fiction hybrid than was actually the case. Sure, Ellar Coltrane's performance is informed by his own life experiences, for he is a human actor - and it's fascinating to see how his acting style changes over time. But Linklater said that he knew the last shot of the film when he started pre-production about a decade and a half ago, and that outlines and ideas were in place going in. Hawke backed him up during the Q&A, saying to Linklater that it was "shocking to see how much the movie looks like how you said it would like 12 years ago."
In other words, it wasn't a collectively devised film, at least on a script and story level, though Hawke said he did consider it a "joint art project" and everyone on stage during the Q&A, including Coltrane - miraculously so much older than he was three hours before - talked about how the cast and crew had become a family by the end of the shoot. That artistic family also included actual blood relations to Linklater: His daughter, Lorelei, plays Mason's brother in the film; he jokes that he "would have been disowned as a father" had he not cast her at age 8, when she was an enthusiastic performer."
Linklater joked that he should call the making-of documentary "12 Years a Slave," given the amount of time the child actors put into the film well before they had reached the age of reason. But Coltrane said that as he got older, he was more grateful to be involved in the project, and that he took it more seriously.
Linklater said he shot the entire film on 35mm in order achieve a consistent look, given the complexity of working in digital during a time of technological upheaval.
Hawke's character gives his son a cleverly compiled mixtape of post-Beatles solo work, The Black Album, that jumps from "Band on the Run" to "My Sweet Lord" (if I remember the sequence right), and Linklater joked that he hopes it'll trigger a release of an iTunes compilation along the same lines. Hawke added that some of the Beatles gifting scene was cut, including his lecture on the drawbacks of their solo work, including "John's righteousness, Paul's goofiness and George's over-spirituality."
As I mentioned, Joe was the second Austin-based super-production making its local premiere at the fest, though, like Boyhood, it had already made its North American premiere elsewhere (at Toronto last year). So while neither qualified as an opening night gala event, Nicolas Cage nonetheless made the trip in, saying after the screening that he found Green's movie to be a perfect fit after taking about a year off to gather his bearings.
I'm inclined to agree: Joe is a great vehicle for Cage, who gets to punch cops, initiate dog fights, befriend and mentor a vulnerable young man in his own all-too-human way - and, ultimately, have a chance a balancing the scales of justice as things tend toward their logical, Southern Gothic conclusion. And it's great material for David Gordon Green, who's shown he has a talent for making compelling drama out of the raw materials of the South - often using amateur actors alongside the pros, filming landscapes and, er, low-income living situations in a fascinating but not exploitative or picturesque way.
The script, adapted from a book by the late crime writer Larry Brown, finds Joe (Cage), an ex-con who heads up a crew doing the dirty work of a logging company coming into contact with the bright, hard-working 15-year-old Gary (Tye Sheridan) and his alcoholic, abusive and ancient dad Wade (the excellent, scary Gary Poulter, plucked right off the streets of Austin, where he had reportedly been living, for the film). Gary does a great job killing trees - you see, the logging company couldn't cut them down were they healthy, but a few hacks with a hachet that distributes poison and the situation is solved - but his dad's a real piece of work, setting up a confrontation between the troubled but not demonic Joe and the probably irredeemable Wade.
It seems to be all about family and community in the Austin film world, and just as Boyhood has its share of non-professionals, so does Joe, which, beyond the once-homeless guy who plays Gary's dad, also features a guy whom Green met at a local barbecue joint as the foreman of a work crew, and Green's next-door neighbor as a sheriff (because Green thought he gave such sage advice, and could do the same for Joe in the film).