“If he had turned out to be a dork, this movie would have been about a dork,” says filmmaker Richard Linklater, referring to Ellar Coltrane, the star of his new film “Boyhood.”
“Instead, it was about a tired guy who has to sleep all the time.”
Coltrane, 19, had just entered the Beverly Hills suite as the director was talking and flopped face first on the bed, weary after a day of promoting the film, which opens in select theaters on Friday and goes into wide release July 18.
Linklater, of course, is an old hand at this, having made 16 movies over 23 years, but this is all new for Coltrane.
Linklater has been filming Coltrane since he was a 6-year-old. It was then that the filmmaker began the 12-year project that would become “Boyhood.” It's the story of an East Texas kid named Mason Evans Jr. and his journey from childhood to adolescence.
In a leap of faith, Linklater would film “Boyhood” over the period in which Coltrane himself would grow up.
Mason's parents, who are already divorced when the film opens, are portrayed by Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette. The actors — along with Lorelei Linklater, the director's daughter, who plays Mason's older sister — made long-term but nonbinding commitments to the film back in 2002.
Coltrane says he was aware at the time that he had wanted to do the movie and that his parents had agreed.
“But my understanding of what 12 years means has changed,” he says.
He admits seeing himself grow up on screen is “kind of eerie.” There are some things that he has little to no memory of, “But in other ways I recognize myself very much, and I am the same person.”
Linklater had wanted to make a film about childhood after being a parent for a while but says he “couldn't find my ‘400 Blows' moment,” referring to Francois Truffaut's classic semiautobiographical film about childhood. The great French director then went on to make a series of movies starring the same actor, Jean-Pierre Leaud, at various ages.
Linklater wanted to do a fictional story of childhood over a longer period, but wanted it to seem natural. He didn't want to age an actor with makeup or have him play younger. Nor did he want to employ multiple actors to indicate different ages.
It then came to Linklater that filming little bits of time over a long period would “create this bigger canvas.”
It seemed an obvious solution, but keeping a cast and crew together and financing were immediate obstacles.
Luckily, IFC agreed to a commitment of $200,000 per year for a total budget of about $2.4 million. Then it was a question of putting the project together and keeping it going.
Linklater saw a lot of young boys before he decided on Coltrane.
“Many of the kids wanted to be actors and were kind of achievers but he was kind of his own guy,” he notes.
The director adds that at the time he was casting the parents, too, “because legally you can't hold a 6-year-old to a contract. The parents had a big part. Ellar had these cool artistic parents. I think that contributed to him.”
The outlines of “Boyhood” are somewhat autobiographical for Linklater, who is also from East Texas. His parents divorced when he was young, and he had two older sisters. So, he says, it took him awhile to find his own voice.
The “Boyhood” shoot was done in three- or four-day increments over a dozen years, but before that, the director would spend time with Coltrane and other key cast members to get a sense of where the film was going before starting to write.
He has worked with Hawke numerous times before, including on the romantic trilogy “Before Sunrise,” “Before Sunset” and last year's “Before Midnight” for which they, along with Julie Delpy, received an Oscar nomination for their screenplay.
“He's the best kind of collaborator,” Linklater says about Hawke. “I think we push each other.”
A Texas native and son of divorced parents, Hawke says he brought some of himself to the role. His character, Mason Sr., has dreams of being a musician at the film's beginning, but eventually those slip away.
“We wanted to tell a story of the guy finding his feet and growing up in a parallel way,” says Hawke, a guitarist and the father of four children, including two with ex-wife Uma Thurman.
“Rick and I both grew up with fathers in the insurance business and both of them had troubled marriages from which they responded and then had happy second marriages.”
Linklater says “Boyhood” is also “a portrait of adults coming into their own and accommodating the world to make their lives work somehow.”
Hawke adds, “We generally see giving up your dreams as a bad thing, but sometimes there are compromises in parenthood that one has to make.”
“It's kind of faint praise to say parents did their best — it sounds so damning,” says Linklater, “but it's often true.”
Growing up as a child actor, Hawke has been advising Coltrane for years.
“Acting is a great thing for young people,” says Hawke. “It's just the public part that makes it so difficult.”
That's what the young actor is facing now with a slew of journalists.
“This is much more bizarre than anything the film ever was,” says Coltrane, referring to the press junket. “Ethan guided me on how to act during the movie, but he's certainly helping me now.”
The Austin native's mother was a painter and dancer and is now an equine therapist, while his dad is a longtime musician who has just released his first album.
“I really appreciate the way my parents brought me up,” says Coltrane, who was homeschooled. “With the kind of freedom I had, I just learned what I was interested in, but that resulted in me shying away from harder academic subjects.”
Coltrane is planning to go to college, perhaps in a year, but he isn't sure whether he's going to pursue art or acting. He had been sketching before the interview.
At the end of “Boyhood,” his character is at his first day of college and goes hiking with new friends. As he gazes at the scenery, which includes a young coed, he thinks about time and muses, “It's like it's always right now.”
The young man says what he learned making the movie was to “appreciate everything and not take it for granted because it just keeps happening whether you pay attention or not.”
Linklater wasn't joking when he said it would have been a different movie had Coltrane been a different kid.
“I expected him be in a band, but the kid gravitated toward visual arts. I liked that more and I incorporated it in the film. It was closer to me,” Linklater said.
Each year, the director would gauge where Coltrane was emotionally and developmentally — what he was watching, listening to, reading and what he was doing for fun.
“There wasn't anything in the film that he wasn't ready for,” says Linklater.
To keep a sense of continuity, Linklater filmed the entire movie on 35mm film, though digital formats had become dominant during the 12 years. To help identify the changing times, the director included what he thought might be “memories” from each year — popular TV shows, movies, presidential elections, “Harry Potter” book signings and songs.
Linklater says he really didn't know what he had until the end.
“Somewhere you realize what you are doing is wildly impractical, and you can't control every element,” he says. “And you have to admit that you are collaborating with an unknown, unstable future, but that's all our lives. Life has a way of going somewhere else.”
Follow Rob Lowman on Twitter: @roblowman1