On Movies: Boy uninterrupted: The life of actor Ellar Coltrane, from age 7 to 19, is the blueprint of "Boyhood"

Mason, age 6, portrayed by Ellar Coltrane in "Boyhood," about "a family seen through one boy's eyes," says costar Ethan Hawke, who plays his father.
Mason, age 6, portrayed by Ellar Coltrane in "Boyhood," about "a family seen through one boy's eyes," says costar Ethan Hawke, who plays his father. (IFC Films)
Posted: July 21, 2014

NEW YORK - It's a muggy Monday in July and the Boyhood family has assembled one more time at a SoHo hotel: writer and director Richard Linklater, actors Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette, and Ellar Coltrane, a gangly soon-to-be-20-year-old with pierced ears and a nose ring.

This is a different kind of reunion for the quartet. Back in 2002, when Coltrane was 7, Linklater brought them together for the first of what would be 12 years of shoots, two weeks every year, to chronicle the fictional life of a Texas kid named Mason, the son of divorced parents - an often-absent musician dad, played by Hawke, and a hard-working mom, Arquette.

From grade school through high school, from Bush to Obama, from staring dreamily into the sky, to, well, staring dreamily into the sky.

The film, which premiered at Sundance in January, opened in New York and Los Angeles last weekend, and arrives at the Ritz Five on Friday, is an extraordinary feat, "an epic about minutiae," as Hawke puts it.

It's not just the story of a boy growing into a young man. It's the story of parents facing their own challenges, of an older sister (Linklater's daughter, Lorelei) and her needs, her fears.

"It's a family seen through one boy's eyes," Hawke explains.

It was a hugely risky undertaking. Other films have tracked characters over decades. Michael Apted's Up documentaries began in 1964 with a diverse clutch of British 7-year-olds, and revisited them every seven years to see how they, and society, had changed. Francois Truffaut chronicled the life of alter ego Antoine Doinel over a 20-year span in five films, beginning in the schoolyard with 1959's The 400 Blows.

But there were gaps, blank spaces that could never be filled. In Boyhood, the changes are incremental.

It all hinged on the boy. What if the kid Linklater had chosen to be Mason didn't work out?

"I tried not to accept the pressure of it," Linklater says. "But I remember wanting to hedge my bets for a second, and I ran the idea by my producer: 'What if we cast two kids, and whichever one works best, we'll go with him?' And my producer said, 'No, we can't do that, we can't afford that, you just got to commit.'

"There isn't any way to hedge your bet. . . . It's just like life . . . life does that to you, like, 'Oh, here's your family.'. . . It was one of those life decisions - more of a commitment than a decision."

And the commitment paid off. Coltrane isn't Mason, exactly, but the real boy informed the fictional one, and vice versa.

"Physically, it's obviously me, and emotionally, there's a lot of me up there," Coltrane says, in a separate interview. "But it's also very much a crafted character."

And a character Coltrane helped craft, meeting with Linklater a month or two before filming began each year to discuss what Coltrane was thinking, experiencing - the video games he played, the graffiti art he made.

Later, when he was a teenager trying to "repair my relationship with my parents," the scenes he shot with Arquette and Hawke proved instructive, impactful. Growing up on camera became a part of his life - at once a strange thing, and perfectly organic.

"I'm such an introverted person that it's very ironic and bizarre that I'm in this situation," Coltrane reflects. "It's definitely strange, but not in a negative way."

Boyhood, running just under three hours, drops in on Mason as he moves to a new town with his sister and his mom, to a new house when she remarries, to his mother's friend's place when that relationship goes wrong. Hawke's character, Mason Sr., plays an increasingly important role - counseling his teenage boy and girl.

Hawke, who has worked with Linklater eight times, including the Before trilogy opposite Julie Delpy, has his own take on why Boyhood is so moving, so bold.

"The movie actually gets a lot of power off of our preconditioned experiences at the cinema, of thinking something big is going to happen," he said to a group gathered at a news conference. "There's an unbelievable tension, because we're so conditioned to think that something horrible must happen. We wouldn't just be watching people drive to this university if there wasn't going to be a car wreck, right? . . .

"That's actually how I feel about my life. A lot of my life is wasted worry."

Coltrane, sitting with his legs crossed, gurulike, chimes in: "There's this tendency, this need, to gravitate towards hyper-drama - that the only thing that makes the story worth telling is big fantastical moments that don't happen to most of us.

"But I think it's really powerful to dwell on the little things."

Like Slacker, the 1991 indie that put Linklater on the map, Boyhood doesn't concern itself much with plot. It sets up a framework for real-world, real-time narratives, and lets them unfold.

Says Hawke: "I remember years ago being in a rehearsal room with the great Tom Stoppard, and he was talking about how plot is this unfortunate device that the audience just needs. And what's funny about plot is that over time you don't even remember it, and he talked about Lawrence of Arabia. Years later, you think of Peter O'Toole standing on top of that train, and the close-up, and this feeling of power and how he was becoming fully actualized. . . .

"And Stoppard said, 'I couldn't tell you where in the story that is, or what's going on. I just remembered that I was moved.' "

Boyhood is full of telling cultural moments, too. For non-Texans especially, the gift Mason gets from his grandparents one birthday might seem strange. Two gifts, actually: a Bible, with his name printed on it, and a shotgun.

"That happened to me, age 13," says Linklater, who grew up in Houston, and has long lived in Austin. "I call it my redneck bar mitzvah year. . . . When it's your culture, you don't think twice about it, but getting older and farther away from it, you think, that was pretty weird."

Boyhood, which opened with a phenomenal $77,524- per-screen average ( Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, the week's No. 1 movie, averaged $18,304 per screen), has already made its $2.4 million production budget back. In June, the film opened in Austria, Germany, and the U.K., with box office of close to $3 million. It is certain to figure prominently as awards season rolls around in fall.

And it is a film that should bring Arquette - an Emmy winner for her work in the NBC psychic cop series Medium - renewed attention. Her Olivia goes from a single working mom, enrolled in night classes, to a woman who marries an abusive spouse with his own kids, to a professor of psychology, lecturing about the attachment theories of John Bowlby.

"I feel so proud to be a part of a movie that respects her character the way this movie does," says Hawke, who, like his costars, agreed to do the project without a contract (film contracts are good for only seven years), and juggled his schedule through the years accordingly. "To see a woman who is a mother and a lover and so much more. It's real, it's true. . . . And she's not just good. She does stupid things and smart things. . . . You can't pin her down - 'Oh, she's a good mother. No, wait, actually, that was not a great decision!'

"And that's the way it is - we see it all the time. But I don't see that woman in movies."

In that way, too, Boyhood stands apart.

Coltrane, speaking earlier in the day about the remarkable journey taken by Mason - and Coltrane, and Arquette, and Hawke, and Linklater, and the movie that began as "The 12 Year Project" - notes: "When you see how life plays out, it just reminds you of how flawed and beautiful we all are."


MOVIE

Boyhood

Opens Friday at the Ritz Five.


srea@phillynews.com

215-854-5629

@Steven_Rea

www.inquirer.com/onmovies

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