Interview: Richard Linklater on the Oscars

Ellar Coltrane as Mason in Boyhood. Picture: PA
Ellar Coltrane as Mason in Boyhood. Picture: PA
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Boyhood director Richard Linklater could win an Academy Award tonight – but he insists that was never his goal, he tells Alistair Harkness

‘THAT’S insane,” says Richard Linklater. It’s the morning after the London Film Critics’ Circle Awards and the Boyhood director is on the phone, reflecting on the strange journey that has seen him, his film and some of his actors become serious Oscar contenders. Having just picked up three more accolades the previous evening – adding to Golden Globes already bagged and laying the groundwork for the three Baftas that will come Boyhood’s way in a matter of weeks – the film’s awards momentum has certainly surprised him – or at least, it has surprised him as much as the laconic Texan filmmaker behind Slacker and Dazed & Confused can be surprised. “We figured out that we first showed Boyhood at Sundance a year ago last night, so we’re in the second year of having people see the film. So yeah, it’s having a unique afterlife.”

Director Richard Linklater. Picture: Getty

Director Richard Linklater. Picture: Getty

Linklater is no stranger to Academy Awards attention. He’s been nominated twice before for co-writing Before Sunset and Before Midnight. But with Boyhood, which has six nominations for tonight’s Oscars, including ones for best picture, best director, best screenplay and two acting nods for Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke (the sixth is for editing), it feels a little different. “Most indie films, when they get nominated, it’s kind of a token ‘Good effort, you’re not a real film, but here’s a little thing anyway’ deal. But for this one, no-one saw us as a small film. It’s being viewed as much more of an epic thing. I guess it’s kind of hard to hide the ambition of the film.”

He’s not kidding on this last point. Made over 12 years, Boyhood charts in real time the coming of age of its young protagonist, Mason, played throughout by Ellar Coltrane, who was seven when he started. Shot for a few days each year, the finished film is a unique experiment – one that Linklater says was designed to reflect the way that our lives aren’t really plot-driven but time-driven. “I wanted to make a film that expressed what it feels like growing up, and also what it feels like to be a parent and go through something that epic with your kid. When I had my big light-bulb moment, what I saw was a film that covered 12 years and all the actors got older and the culture changed – and you would experience it all in one sitting.”

Though bookies have the race for best picture and best director neck and neck between Boyhood and Alejandro G Iñárritu’s Birdman, the reason Boyhood has become the big story is that it was released with nary a thought given to the Academy Awards.

That’s unusual. Ever since Harvey Weinstein figured out how to maximise the awards potential of a given release through relentless campaigning – Shakespeare In Love’s defeat of Saving Private Ryan is generally regarded as ground zero for the current era – an entire industry has grown up built around securing awards and predicting likely front-runners. Studios spend millions each year backing their big contenders and the release schedule has become increasingly bifurcated: there’s “blockbuster season” (March through August), then there’s “awards season” (September through December), during which time any vaguely serious film tends to be released to keep it fresh in the minds of the myriad voters and awards bodies doling out accolades in the run-up to the big show tonight.

What’s heartening about this year (but also a little depressing given what it tells us about the industry’s preconceptions) is that neither Boyhood nor fellow indie cohort Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel (which has nine Oscar nominations) conformed to the presumptive “for your consideration” release strategy.

“Any film that comes out in March, like Grand Budapest Hotel, or the summer, like Boyhood, the people behind the films are not saying ‘This is our award-winner for the year’,” confirms Linklater. “Otherwise it would be coming out in October and November. You know: Awards Season,” he adds, sarcastically. “It’s a marketing plan and obviously it was not part of those films’ plans to be awards films. So maybe there’s something kind of pure about that – that it’s there because it stuck with people.”

If Boyhood and The Grand Budapest Hotel are anomalies, though, they’re not without precedents. In 2010, Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker won best picture, despite being released as a summer action film, and in 2005, Crash scored a surprise win in the same category following its release the previous May. There’s no doubt that both subsequently benefited from vigorous campaigning in the run-up to the awards (just as Boyhood and The Grand Budapest Hotel have). Yet the perception remains that award-worthy films have to be released in the autumn.

“It is kind of a bummer,” says JC Chandor, the writer/director of Margin Call, All Is Lost and A Most Violent Year. “Unless you’re in your 15th or 20th year of your career like Wes Anderson or Richard Linklater and have a built-in core audience, it’s almost impossible not to release one of those movies in this September-to-December window, because that’s when all the marketing is done.”

Having received one of those “token” Oscar nods Linklater refers to for his Margin Call script, Chandor is well aware of the benefits awards attention can bring. But having also had subsequent films unsuccessfully positioned as awards contenders, he thinks the release schedule that now exists makes little economic sense and, worse, distorts our interpretation of what constitutes a film worthy of those extra plaudits. “From a business standpoint it kind of bums me out that you’ve got 20 movies that are presumably the best non-blockbusters of the year, and yet they’re basically shooting each other in a barrel, competing for the same limited audience.”

The problem, he reckons, is that film distributors have played into a system designed to feed the business of the awards themselves. What Oscar voters should really be doing at the end of the year, he says, is looking at the 20 best movies that they think they’re interested in, not the ones prescribed by their release date.

Linklater agrees. “If anything, maybe the success of Boyhood and Budapest says there maybe shouldn’t be an awards season. You know, play the long game that an awards-worthy film can come out at any time. It’s not a seasonal thing. It’s a quality resonance thing.”

The other great thing about Boyhood’s prominence, though, is that film explores how our lives aren’t defined by the big milestones: they’re defined by the small moments that collectively make up who we are. Which seems like a good philosophy to apply to the Oscars, however the result goes tonight.

“Yeah,” laughs Linklater. “Well, what are milestones? Are they goals or are they just things that happen to you? Oscars and awards are never goals. They’re not a practical goal to have, so I’ve never really thought about them much. I think in retrospect that if that’s the result and you get awards, then that’s kind of wonderful. But I don’t know. It’s kind of a neat little thing for the legacy of the film, but it won’t define us one way or another.”

Boyhood is available on DVD, Blu-Ray and download. The 87th Academy Awards are broadcast live tonight on Sky Movies