How did Linklater Work With the Passing of Time in “Boyhood”?


Boyhood is a narrative fiction film that was shot intermittently over a 12-year period from 2002-2014. It portrays the adolescent coming-of-age of a young boy, Mason (Ellar Coltrane), who grows up in Texas with divorced parents.

An important distinction between documentaries and traditional narrative films is that in narrative film, the filmmaker constructs a self-contained world for the story. By contrast, documentaries typically capture a slice of life or a series of events out of a much larger reality. Even though it is a narrative (fiction) film, Boyhood aspires towards documentary form by consciously opening up to reality, particularly the realistic effect of time on the actors, whether it’s aging or through their own personal experiences. Allowing a film to be affected so blatantly by external realities is often terrifying for a narrative filmmaker because you’re virtually ceding your film to forces out of your control.

The structural possibilities of Boyhood became more apparent during the editing process rather than prior to filming. As described by Eric Kohn in IndieWire, the film often relies “on the changes in its characters’ physical appearances to connote the advancing years…In one early scene, we watch Mason’s mom flirting with a new character, her college professor, and in the next, they’re returning from their honeymoon.” Most transitions aren’t so clever, as they “mostly track the passage of time though the pop-cultural ephemera cropping up in the margins, and even more crucially by the length of Mason’s ever-evolving hair. Still, some transitions can knock the wind out of you: When we see Mason shrug his shirt off at 12, his pear-shaped body still ringed with baby fat, it’s startling to see the next scene, where mere months later, he’s a foot taller and whippet-thin.”

Physical aging may be the most immediate result of the film’s long production, but the actors’ evolving personal lives directly influenced the film as well. Linklater told Coltrane that even though the film was not going to be a memoir of his life, it would reflect certain things he was going through. For example, Linklater always knew that at some point, Mason’s story would involve his first serious relationship, but he did not want to introduce that concept into the film until Coltrane had that experience in real life. As Coltrane got older, he would become even more observant of his own social interactions with other people, knowing that it could provide some inspiration in shaping the material for the next part of the film.

One thing that Linklater noted was how the culture did not change. At the start, he understood that certain elements of the film could seem very dated by the end of production, but while cultural events like the Harry Potter books and the 2008 election did get used in the film, for the most part, culture did not change. Compared to other 12 year stretches from the ‘60s into the ‘90s, when it came to fashion the 12 year of span of Boyhood seemed relatively inert, whether it was clothing and hair or the look of automobiles.