What Makes the 12-Year Shoot of “Boyhood” so Groundbreaking?

While the story told in Boyhood (2014) is a very intimate, small-scale family drama, the actual film itself feels epic in scale due to its structure and unusual filming process, which spanned twelve years of shooting in order to follow a young boy’s (Mason, played by Ellar Coltrane) growth from childhood to adolescence and eventually into young adulthood.

Completing Boyhood represents a remarkable achievement because of the significant financial and logistical risks inherent in such a project. Creator, writer and director Richard Linklater has said, “It’s the strangest proposition to ask someone to help finance something for twelve years in our industry. [Jonathan Sehring at IFC] doesn’t make a lot of films, and as years went on, I’d run into him, and he’d say, ‘Well, we have one film in production.’ Every year, I just had a board meeting. Everyone asks what the hell this is on the books. He had to lie, every year.”

Boyhood (2014)

Beyond the unusual way in which the film was funded, the movie’s filmmaking process is virtually unprecedented in the history of cinema – long-term projects encompassing a similar time frame as Boyhood typically only appear in documentaries (such as Michael Apted’s Up series, which has been revisiting its subjects every seven years since 1964), and even those documentary projects are exceptionally rare.

In the realm of narrative fiction, one of Boyhood‘s greatest influences is certainly François Truffaut’s Antione Doinel series, which began with The 400 Blows (1959), a sort of cinematic Bildungsroman tracing the main character’s development from adolescence to manhood. While Truffaut made four features and one short over the course of twenty years based around the semi-autobiographical character Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud), each of those works is self-contained. Logistically, Truffaut produced the features like a series of sequels rather than one continuing project. Similarly, Linklater’s own Before Sunrise (1995), Before Sunset (2004) and Before Midnight (2013) films were shot in nine-year intervals but always produced as individual sequels instead of one ongoing project.

Boyhood (2014)

One film that employed a filmmaking model closer to that of Boyhood is Everyday (2012) by Michael Winterbottom, which deals with a man’s five-year imprisonment. Winterbottom’ work was actually filmed over five years, shooting a few weeks at a time. However, besides being logistically simpler, Everyday also started years after Boyhood had already begun production.

Several films have attempted some of the same challenges as Boyhood, from following a specific character over an extended period of time to filming a single work over the course of several years. However, by attempting all of these things simultaneously over an unprecedented length of time, Boyhood stands as a singular, groundbreaking work in cinematic history.