On July 11, movie-goers can watch an actor grow up — in real time. Boyhood, the latest offering from director Richard Linklater (Before Sunset, Scanner Darkly, School of Rock), follows a first grader named Mason (Ellar Coltrane) as he grows into a college freshman. Filmed in Texas over 12 years, the narrative is all about truths that people can actually relate to. The earth is never rent asunder — but a family kind of is. There is no sharknado — but there is a seriously traumatic haircut.
TIME spoke to Linklater and Coltrane, as well as Patricia Arquette, who plays Mason’s mother Olivia, opposite Ethan Hawke as Mason’s father. The interviews were conducted separately, but we’ve spliced them together to give readers a sense of what this unprecedented project looked like from all angles.
When did you conceive of the project?
Richard Linklater: It happened in stages. In the late 90s, I felt like I wanted to tell a story about childhood. I had been a parent for a while, pushing 40. I had something to say, but it wasn’t fitting into one film. Because you have this natural limitation. You can’t ask a seven-year-old to suddenly be a 14-year-old. So I had given up on it. Then, I sat down to write an experimental novel or something in 2001 and that’s where this idea hit me. ‘Oh, what if you filmed a little bit every year.’ And then I could encompass all these ideas. That was the “aha!” moment.
Why did you settle on 12 years?
Linklater: Public school, first through 12th grade. The grid that we’re sentenced to. I remember feeling that, like ‘Oh, I’ve got eight more years of this, seven more years of this…’ It also represented getting out of the house. Freedom awaits at this moment. I knew it would end with him at college. And I knew I would never be bored of this project because it was a deeper well, about maturing, growing up, parenting. There was endless material.
What was your reaction when Richard approached you about being in the film?
Patricia Arquette: I agreed to do it before I even really knew what it was, what the plot was, or anything. When he told me he was going to do this movie that spanned 12 years, I was like, ‘Okay, I’m in. Now what is it about? What’s my character?’
What about it immediately appealed to you?
Arquette: I like that idea, the passage of time, seeing it in all its glory and horror. And being brave enough to see that happen. This is a once-in-a-lifetime chance, because the business has gotten to be more and more of a sort of banker’s business. I don’t even know how the hell he got financing 12 years in advance. The film doesn’t fit into any formula, like in the third act ‘this’ should happen, and we’re talking about an age where everything is calculated into graphs. Who are you making this for? What demographic? And this defies everything. It was really life, and Rick had the total faith that life would hold itself — that life was enough.
Was it hard making the business case for financing the film?
Linklater: I talked to some producers and they’re like, ‘Huh? What? We’re gonna pay and not …’ It just made no sense. But then IFC came aboard. I had done two films with them, Tape and Waking Life. They took the long term view. And it wasn’t that much money, about $200,000 a year. We’re shooting on film. It was very low budget. And they just took the leap. I fully expected halfway through to be abandoned and have to seek other financing. I never had to, though. It’s a minor miracle.
And how did you select your actors?
Linklater: Artists are great. They jump in. I had met Patricia once, in passing. And I called her up. I just knew she’d be perfect. And we talked for a couple hours, about our moms and just life. She had been a parent kind of young. So she was in. Ethan [Hawke] was in. Then here comes the major decision. Okay, who plays the guy? That’s huge. It’s the decision. And I met a lot of kids. And I’m like, ‘Okay. You’re really nice, but you’re gonna be a little jock. You’re straight. You want to please your parents.’
What do you remember of auditioning?
Ellar Coltrane: It was very casual. It was a long audition process. I think Rick wanted to be sure. My memories are somewhat vague. It wasn’t like most auditions because he didn’t have a script or lines for me to read. It was more of a conversation. He just wanted to talk and figure out who I was.
What sold you on Ellar?
Linklater: I just liked his thought process. He wasn’t academic. Ellar couldn’t really read yet, at six. But he was thinking. He had all these interesting thoughts. He’s still the same guy, this mysterious, ethereal young man. And he has cool parents. Dad’s a musician. Mom’s a dancer. And you’re casting them as much as him. A six-year-old can’t make a 12-year commitment, and it was really important that it had that familial support.
When did you understand what a special, different kind of film this was?
Coltrane: It was very gradual. I understood how bizarre it was. But I couldn’t have possibly grasped what it was going to end up meaning to me. And I still don’t really know. It’s a totally bizarre experience to have worked on it, and even more so to watch it now. Watching myself age, watching myself change like that, it’s indescribable. It causes a lot of catharsis and a lot of intense emotion. It’s a very elusive part of life, the way we change over time.
Did you have a contingency plan? What if one of the actors gets in a car wreck? What if they get a terrible disease? Was that just part of the risk?
Linklater: It was no more a risk than life is a risk, in the real world. The phone can ring and you can get bad news and something can be changed dramatically. But the film had a great faith in the future, in statistical norms. If something crazy happens, we’ll work it in. It was designed to work in who everyone was becoming. I could subtly go with where they were at developmentally. I had these ideas of what would happen but it was always tempered with who everyone was, what they were doing.
Was it hard to get back into character year after year?
Arquette: When you have a script, you can plot the arc of your character and make choices. But in this case, we didn’t have a script at the beginning, so when we would talk about the scenes before we’d shoot that year, everyone would incorporate their experience. ‘Well, when my mom divorced my dad, this is what happened. Oh, and this is what my mom did …’. I knew the broad strokes. But we would make an amalgamation of who she was, which wasn’t always pre-determined and defined.
So the story is shifting, but what was the core of what you really wanted to tell?
Linklater: I was trying to tell a memory, of what it was like to grow up. Things you would remember from your past. There was no one thing. It was more of a tone, just a series of moments.
What about the film do you think will resonate with people?
Coltrane: I think it’s just the simple nature of the story, it’s about the little moments, something that is glossed over in almost all modern entertainment. It’s the supposedly boring moments, the things that supposedly don’t matter. But in reality, I think those are things that do matter, not these big set-piece moments, the things you’re told are going to define you. The first kiss doesn’t really matter that much. The film explores that and how important your relationships are with your family members. It’s very easy to become resentful of the people that raised you or the people that you raise, just because you’re so close to them. It’s hard to see them sympathetically for the person that they are. And part of what the film expresses is that we’re all trying.
What’s is it like now, watching yourself age over time?
Arquette: It’s pretty harsh, but also kind of exhilarating. It would have been a different movie if I wanted to worry about that and do a bunch of Botox and make sure I looked a certain way. I didn’t want that. I wanted this changing evolution and I wanted things to look hard when they felt hard. I didn’t want them to be Hollywoodized. There’d be moments where I’d decide, ‘You know, I want to put on a few more pounds.’ She’s in this marriage. She’s not feeling good. When you’re playing something like this that is really steeped in reality, your biggest job is to make it feel real.
Are there any tricks of the trade you used to get that realness?
Arquette: It was real by nature. The budget was really tiny. Before we started filming, Rick had me take the kids for the weekend. They had a sleepover with me. We did arts and crafts. I cooked them breakfast in the morning. We bonded like that. And there was nothing highfalutin about anything. Hair and makeup would crammed into like a three foot space with each other, with the wardrobe. Sometimes I’m bringing my own clothes from home or they’ll go to the Goodwill and get clothes. A snotty person couldn’t survive.
What was it like being on set?
Coltrane: We had some long days, of course, where it got exhausting. But everybody was so happy to be there. Nobody was making any money. So everybody who was there was there because they wanted to be.
What was it like coming back year after year?
Arquette: It felt like home. It felt like family. Like holidays without any drama. … But toward the end I started to really lament it coming out because I didn’t want the experience to end and I didn’t want people’s opinion about whether it worked or not because it meant so much to me.
How did you decide where to start and stop each year?
Linklater: It was like writing a novel. It just sort of flowed. It’s like, what’s the transition? Now where are we at? What do we just omit? The incredible thing is I had on the average about a year to think about it, to edit what we just shot, to attach it to everything that came before.
Did your own boyhood influence these experiences you highlighted, like all the disillusionment?
Linklater: I’m the kid who wanted to grow up and be Bugs Bunny. I was very, very disappointed when I realized I couldn’t grow up and be a cartoon character [laughs]. Or when I found out that frogs and dogs and cats, they don’t go to school during the day. I used some of these memories. Gradually, the world seems limited and you’re limited. You’re like, I’m stuck with these parents and I’m in this house. [But] the real world actually is better than anything you can imagine, if you just pay attention and look at it. The natural phenomenon of the universe is so mind-blowing, but you have to know about it. You have to be curious. You’ve got to find it on your own. If you’re lucky, you do.
Did you have moments where it was hard for it to be so real, where you might have otherwise gone back and filmed the first scene all over again?
Linklater: I don’t have a habit of that. My working method has always been, ‘Work really hard and get it right the first time.’ And we just flat didn’t have the luxury. If something’s out of focus and doesn’t work, I can’t go reshoot it. If you lose something, this was it. We only had this moment. The ante was always up. There was no turning back.
What was it like watching Ellar and Lorelei [Linklater, who plays his sister] grow up?
Arquette: Totally, incredibly beautiful. They were smart little kids, funky little kids. I loved watching these kids blossom. It’s like watching a flower open. As they got older, they started to break away and realize their characters weren’t themselves And they got all of the good things of making a movie and none of the weird things that come with being a child actor.
What was it like coming back to this thing no other kid is experiencing year after year, did it affect your other life?
Coltrane: It definitely influenced who I became in subtle ways, as I grew up. But it was such a short amount of time. And it was such a casual thing. It was like a summer camp or something, where I went and learned from these people and got to participate in this art project. And that allowed me to just be lost in the process and not worry about the product. That’s really what filmmaking and acting is about. It’s not about the end, it’s not about the movie coming out. It’s about making it.
What was finishing the last take like?
Linklater: Even if you do a three day shoot, it’s like this is the martini, the last shot on the last day. There’s this energy. So imagine what that was like after a 12-year shoot. It was the last shot we did in the movie. Sun’s going down. We’re out in the mountains overlooking Mexico and the Rio Grande. The sun’s behind the mountain. We’ve got a little window to shoot. We’re hustling, but this is the martini. And then we shot it, however many takes we could get in while the light was right. And I was like, we got it guys, that was perfect. It was a great moment. And Ellar and I just looked at each other. We stood up and hugged. He just didn’t let go. It was intense. I was just walking around in a daze, looking out as the night came on. It was just, wow. There’s no other way to describe it. But that’s what this was, 12 years of time, magical little moments throughout.