The first time I ever saw him, I was fascinated,” director Richard Linklater enthuses. “All I could think was: ‘What kind of man are you going to be? What are you going to be like at ten? At 14? Will you be cool? Are you going to be smart?’” You might, understandably, assume he was talking about his son.
In fact, the “him” is Ellar Coltrane, star of Linklater’s new film Boyhood (released in cinemas today). It is, as the title suggests, the story of one ordinary American boy’s childhood, from six until 18. But it’s a coming-of-age tale like no other. Coltrane was cast just short of his seventh birthday. Then, from 2002 until last year, he, Linklater and co-stars Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette (who play the boy’s parents) filmed for a few days every summer, to create a flawless, time-lapse portrait of growing up. The result charms everyone who sees it. There is already talk of Oscars.
Linklater is 53 but looks preposterously young in jeans and t-shirt, tanned with a shaggy dollop of hair. An amiable native of Austin, Texas, he tallies up Boyhood as his 18th film in a 25-year career making bold, endlessly surprising movies.
Even so, this one was “a leap of faith”. The risks were huge. If he decided later he didn’t like a year’s footage, he could hardly re-shoot it. What if Coltrane eventually lost interest? What if he couldn’t carry a film? Yet back in 2002, he kept his cool. “I knew I was embarking on something special. But it’s like your first day of school, you just want to survive until lunchtime. And the last day we filmed – that was magical. I was almost levitating.”
At six, Ellar was chaperoned by his artist parents. By the end, he was driving himself to the set. Inspired as his casting call was, Linklater knows he struck lucky. If most teenage boys end up unsightly and unsanitary, then Coltrane proved that rare thing – a likeable adolescent.
“Even as a kid, Ellar seemed like he was searching somehow. People respond to that.” Just as important was his dedication. “Every year I thought this would be the summer he’d get bored, but every year he was there, into it.”
Of course, in the background of Boyhood, the world is busy changing. “I couldn’t have known that six years in, a senator from Illinois would become the first African-American president.” But the fabric of the movie is personal – parents, siblings, peer pressure, girls, the everyday adventures of a kid who starts the film wondering what happens to animals when they die and ends it at university. I’ve always been fascinated by time.”
His breakthrough film, Slacker, was a freewheeling tour around Austin in a single day; his most successful movies have been the Before... trilogy in which a pair of lovers (Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy) collide at nine-year intervals. Linklater acknowledges the example of British documentary-maker Michael Apted and his ground-breaking Up TV series – but this is a wholly Richard Linklater movie, as funny as it is inventive. “I’ve failed if people just see this as an experiment – I think it’s a great story.”
It’s also not the first time he’s worked with children. “Directing is parental anyway. To make films you have to be a control freak – as a parent, you would like to be one. And with both, you’re desperately wanting to shape something, and you might be doing it all wrong.”
Back in 2003, he made the much-loved School of Rock, a riotous musical comedy starring Jack Black and a gaggle of precocious kids. Boyhood meant more of the same, and not just with Coltrane. On screen, Ellar’s older sister is played by Lorelei Linklater, the eldest of the director’s three daughters. They didn’t argue, he says – but unlike Ellar, in certain years his daughter was clearly “over it”.
Linklater’s childhood figures in the story as well as his parenthood. As the film begins, Ellar’s parents have split up. Linklater’s divorced when he was seven – “my past was in there, sure. Whenever my parents were in the same room, I was very aware of them trying to get along for our sake. But you could sense the conflict.”
Not long into Boyhood, Ellar’s real parents separated, too. “But they’re the best-adjusted divorced couple ever. I just figured when I was working on the story, well, statistically, most couples don’t make it...”
Yet he’s been with his partner Christina Harrison for 20 years. “We’re not married, though. Maybe that’s the key. I’m anti-institutional generally, so I never wanted to marry.”
At points like this, Linklater sounds very Austin. His home town, after all, is a counter-cultural oasis in the heart of Texas, filled with rock bands, free spirits and pot smoke. Over the years, he and Hollywood have flirted – but that relationship never worked out, either.
“I’ve been kicked out of Hollywood a couple of times,” he says. “They would never make a film like this. Too small. It’s funny, it’s only now I feel like film-making is my job. Finally in my 50s I’ve realised, ‘OK, if I just keep the budget low and don’t get paid, I can keep doing this.’”
He ponders this summer as the first in 12 years where he won’t be making Boyhood. “It’s very bittersweet. But it’s weirder for Ellar. He can’t remember a summer without it.”
I ask if the pair might reunite for a sequel, a portrait of Coltrane’s 20s or beyond. They could call it Adulthood. He grins at the thought. “Who knows the future?”