Usually when characters age in movies, they're covered with makeup and outfitted with prosthetics — or directors use different actors as the characters grow older. But in the new film Boyhood, none of that is necessary.
The film takes place over the course of 12 years, and it was shot over the course of 12 years. So we watch the actors getting older for real, which gives their characters a sense of authenticity.
At the beginning of the movie, the main character, Mason, is 6 years old. He and his sister, who is a couple of years older, live in a small town in Texas with their mother, who is divorced from their father.
The film's writer and director, Richard Linklater, says that picking Ellar Coltrane to play Mason was a vital choice because he had to guess what he'd be like when he was 18.
"I was in the unique once-in-a-lifetime position, really," Linklater tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "I was banking the whole movie on this kid."
Over the next 12 years, the children grow up, and their parents stumble their way through the next stage of adulthood.
Linklater also made the films Slacker, Dazed and Confused, the Before Sunrise trilogy, School of Rock and Bernie. He says shooting Boyhood was a rare venture because he had the luxury to figure out what the story needed, such as incorporating cultural shifts and changes in the actors' lives.
"We filmed 39 days over about a 4,200-day stretch ... which is incredible," Linklater says. "It gave me so much time to just think and process everything we had done so far."
On seeing people age on film
Part of the idea was to see people transform in one sitting of a movie, to see them transform into that young adult, in this case, or see the adults get older. I mean, that is a fascinating journey we all make.
I run into friends that I grew up with, and I look in their faces and [think], "Oh, my God, we're middle-aged people now." And I still see the little kid they were, and it's fascinating. [You] see a picture of yourself when you're little, and are you even still that person? Yes, there's a connection there.
On casting 6-year-old Ellar Coltrane
It was a huge leap. I just went with a kid who seemed kind of the most interesting. I liked the way his mind worked — he was a little mysterious and sensitive and very thoughtful. He was cut from no ordinary cloth. He was home-schooled, and his parents were artists, and I thought, "Well, that's cool. There'll be some family support for this undertaking. It will be a fun thing to do in his life."
So I think I had the family support, but as far as he goes, you kind of have to admit that your main collaborator here has a really unknown future. But I would have each year to incrementally adjust and maybe go toward who he was becoming. That was sort of the design of the movie.
On casting his daughter
I almost felt like I didn't cast Lorelei. Once it was apparent that the older sister was in her age range ... she sort of insisted on the part. I never really thought about casting it traditionally. She sort of took the part like, "Daddy, well, I'm playing that part." She had grown up on movie sets. She had been in other movies — little parts — and it was very natural for her. She was very extroverted at that point in her life. The sassy kid at the beginning of the movie — that was her.
On planning for scenes years in advance
Even as I structured [the film] and knew the trajectories of the characters and all the physicality — they're moving here, there's a divorce, you get your degree, you move again ... I kind of had all that worked out, but I was kind of looking forward to the new ideas that would emerge in the process.
I had notes that I knew I wanted to hit later in the film that I knew I couldn't even articulate yet. I knew, "Oh, that will be eight or nine years before I truly will know the right tone for that scene, but there it sits as a placeholder way into the future."
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Usually in movies, when we see a character age, it's with the help of makeup and prosthetics or using different actors as the character ages. But in the new film "Boyhood," none of that is necessary. The film takes place over the course of 12 years and it was shot over the course of 12 years. So we watched the actors getting older for real, which gives their characters a sense of authenticity. "Boyhood" was written and directed by my guest Richard Linklater, who also made the films "Slacker," "Dazed and Confused," the "Before Sunrise" trilogy, "School Of Rock" and Bernie.
"Boyhood" begins when the main character Mason is six and his sister is a couple of years older. They're living in a small town in Texas with their mother, who's divorced from their father. Over the next 12 years, we watch the children grow up and their parents stumble their way through the next stage of adulthood. The parents are played by Ethan Hawke, who costarred in Linklater's "Before Sunrise" trilogy, and Patricia Arquette. The boy is played Ellar Coltrane. His sister is played by Linklater's daughter Lorelei. Let's start with a scene from about a quarter of the way through the film. The mother has remarried and found out too late that her new husband drinks and has an authoritarian streak. He's forced her shaggy-haired son to get a buzz cut. The boy's embarrassed by his haircut. Soon after, alone in the car with his mother, he lets her know how angry he is.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BOYHOOD)
ELLAR COLTRANE: (As Mason) I mean, he didn't even ask. He just cut it. I mean, it's my hair.
PATRICIA ARQUETTE: (As Olivia) Well, no wonder you were angry. I'd be angry too.
COLTRANE: (As Mason) I look like a Martian now.
ARQUETTE: (As Olivia) Honey, you know what? I'm going to talk to him about it later, OK?
COLTRANE: (As Mason) I tried to call you but you didn't answer your phone.
ARQUETTE: I'm so sorry. I've been so busy with school. Hey, for what it's worth it's hair and it will grow back. Now I can see your pretty eyes and your foxy face.
COLTRANE: (As Mason) Why'd you even marry him? He's such a jerk.
ARQUETTE: Well, Bill has his good qualities. You know, nobody's perfect. And now we have a family.
COLTRANE: (As Mason) We already had a family.
GROSS: Richard Linklater, welcome to FRESH AIR. You know, throughout my life...
RICHARD LINKLATER: Thanks.
GROSS: ...I've always wondered like - gee, what's that baby going to look like as a child, and what's that child going to look like as a teenager, and what's that teenager going to look like as an adult, and what's that adult going to look like as an elderly person? When I was in, like, grade school, I used to think like - what's the kid sitting next me going to look like an adult? Because I couldn't fathom kids my age looking like adults - it seemed just unimaginable to me that we'd all grow into what adults look like. And I'm wondering if that's part of what you were thinking about in shooting this film over 12 years.
LINKLATER: (Laughing) Well, I don't know if that was the main motivation, but it was certainly kind of - part of the idea was to see people transform in one sitting of a movie - to see them transform into that young adult in this case or see the adults get older. I mean, that is the fascinating journey we all make. I run into friends from - that I grew up with - and I look in their faces and I'm like oh my God, we're middle-aged people now. And I still see the little kid they were.
And it's, you know, it's fascinating when you see a picture of yourself when you were little and God, are you even still that person? Yes, there's a connection there. But I was in the unique, once-in-a-lifetime position, really. It felt like, when I was choosing the young actor Ellar Coltrane, I was staring in the face of a six- year-old, thinking - not just curious what - what are you going to be like, what are you going to look like when you're, you know, 18 - but it was kind of professionally important to me. (Laughing) You know, I was banking the whole movie on this kid and thinking - what kind of person are you going to grow up to be. It was kind of mysterious. And so...
GROSS: Well, I thought about that a lot watching the movie, the risk that you took casting a six- year-old. You can't - I don't know how much you can predict as a film director or as a casting director or even as a parent what a child is going to look like, what their personality is going to be, whether they'll be at all interested in following through on this as they get older. So what did you do to not only audition the kid, but to screen them to see, like, do they have a chance of remaining interested over 12 years and maintaining a certain degree of talent?
LINKLATER: Yeah, yeah. I mean, it was a huge leap. I just went to the kid that seemed kind of the most interesting. I liked the way his mind worked. He was a little mysterious and sensitive and very thoughtful. He was cut from no, you know, ordinary cloth. You know, he was kind of home-schooled, his parents were artists. I thought well, that's cool. There'll be some family support for this undertaking. It'll be a fun thing to do in his life.
So I think I had the family support. But as far as he goes, you just kind of have to admit you're collaborating - your main collaborator here is really an unknown future. So - but I would have each year to kind of incrementally adjust and maybe go toward who he was becoming. And that was sort of the design of the movie. So I can really sit here at the end and go - at the beginning, it's not really him. He's playing this fictional character. But by the end, all those years later, I think his character had morphed largely - still fictional character - but, you know, that's really him sitting up on the mountain at the end. I would say that's Ellar.
GROSS: Can you tell us about the genesis of the plan? Like, what was the first idea you had for this movie?
LINKLATER: I had been a parent for about six years, so I was really in the mindset of a kid. You know, you're so - that relation is so close, you can't help but dredge up your own childhood at every stage of development. But then simultaneous to that, I'm also bumbling through parenthood, this new thing that - like, oh well, does anyone know how to do this? You know, how do you - you know - something you're not really prepared for but you're doing your best. So all that experience and emotions added up to me wanting to tell a movie about childhood, I think.
GROSS: And parenthood.
LINKLATER: And parenthood, yeah because when you tell a story of kids at a young age, you know, the parents are such a big part of their lives. So I sat down to maybe write - I was going to - well, maybe it should be a novel. You know, I had something - maybe some experimental weird novel I'd always wanted to write. And this film idea hit me - well, what if I filmed a little bit every year?
And in the one movie - the one story - everyone would age, you know, the kids would grow up, the parents would age and I could - you know - this vast cinematic canvas presented itself to me. It's like, oh, that had never been done, would that work? And it just presented itself to me all at one time. And the tone of the movie, everything, it solved all my problems. And that's the fun part, you know, that's the storytelling breakthrough.
GROSS: How much of the story did you have in your mind when you set out to make the movie and how did that change as the years went by and the actors you were working with, particularly the children, one of whom is your daughter, changed?
LINKLATER: All - it's both - the macro and the micro.
GROSS: And you changed too, I'm sure.
GROSS: I'm sure you've changed over 12 years. And your idea of how children mature and what happens to parents - I'm sure that changed over 12 years.
LINKLATER: Of course, I looked forward to that. That was kind of built into the design of the movie. Even as I structured it and knew the trajectories of the characters and kind of all the physicality - oh, they're moving here, there's a divorce, you get your degree, you move again. The dad comes into your life and, you know, all this. I kind of had that all worked out. But I was kind of looking forward to, you know, the new ideas that would emerge in the process, you know. I had notes I know I wanted to hit later in the film that I knew I couldn't even articulate yet. I knew oh, that'll be eight or nine years before I truly will know the right tone for that scene. But there it sits as a placeholder way into the future.
So it's kind of good to know what you're working toward. But it's also rare in film that you have this luxury of time. You know, we filmed our schedule - we filmed 39 days over about a 4,200 day stretch of time, which is incredible. So it gave me so much time to just think and process everything we had done so far. I could edit, attach that to this ever-growing film. Year-by-year it's becoming larger. I would edit the entire film again - watch it, think about it - what does the story need? Incorporate whatever is going on in the culture that I felt was relevant. And then also watch it click about it what does the story need. Incorporate whatever's going on in the culture that I felt, you know, was relevant. And then also incrementally aging and growing up cast, being in touch with them and what's going on in their lives.
GROSS: Now, you cast your daughter as the older sister in the movie. And she's, like, what, a couple of years older than her brother?
LINKLATER: Yeah, she was nine and Ellar was seven when we started, yeah.
GROSS: So tell me why you cast your daughter. I was thinking part of the reason - I'm guessing here - that part of the reason was if you were willing to put your daughter through it, then you'd feel more comfortable putting Ellar, Ellar Coltrane through it.
GROSS: And also his parents would feel more comfortable thinking, like, well, his own daughter's doing it, so he's going to treat my son OK.
LINKLATER: They don't know who they're dealing with. No, you know, I never really thought of that. I guess that might've impressed them that oh yeah, I'm putting my family on the line for this. But it was really - it almost felt like I didn't cast Lorelei. She - once it was apparent that the older sister was in her age range, you know, the kind of - starts off kind of the annoying older sister. She sort of insisted on the part. I never really thought about casting it traditionally. I never - she sort of took the part like daddy, well, I'm playing that part. She had grown up on movie sets. She'd been in other movies, little parts. And it was just very natural for her. She's very extraverted at that point in her life. And, you know, the sassy kid you see at the beginning of the movie, that was her.
GROSS: But didn't it cross your mind that there might've been one of those moments of - I hate you daddy and I hate your movie?
LINKLATER: I didn't think that at the beginning because she was so gung-ho. But surprise, you know, here comes puberty (laughing). You know, adolescence and, you know, here we go. She did have a year where she was like dad, can my character, like, die?
LINKLATER: You know, she was (laughing) - that wasn't, like, director-actor, that was daughter-father. And it was really cute and I couldn't figure out if she was having an emotional reaction to the dressing up for the Harry Potter book signing that year. And I only found out recently that was - it seemed irrational to me at the time, and I was like well, no Lorelei. You know, that would be a little dramatic for the film we're making. You know, she got through it. And then she really came back aboard and she never wanted to bail again. She was really a trooper and I'm very proud of the work she did. She was great.
GROSS: My guest is Richard Linklater. He wrote and directed the new film "Boyhood." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Richard Linklater and his new movie is called "Boyhood," he wrote and directed it. And his other movies include "Slacker," "Dazed and Confused" and - and "Bernie". So you describe the character that your daughter, Lorelei Linklater, plays in the movie as like the annoying older sister.
LINKLATER: Starts off that way
GROSS: Starts off that way. So here's her starting off as the annoying sister moment.
LINKLATER: Oh yeah.
GROSS: And she - she's singing the Britney Spears hit, "Oops, I Did it Again." And - and - her - her - her younger brother is just feeling like tormented by being forced to watch her sing this. And she's like dancing around the room and everything. So, let me just play that moment and - and you'll hear him just kind of - feeling tormented and then she starts - kind of - you know, tormenting him. And then the mother walks in and...
LINKLATER: ...She fakes crying.
GROSS: And, yeah. She fakes that he hit her when really she's the one who's been picking on him. So - so - so here's scene. And this is Richard Linklater's daughter, Lorelei Linklater, as the older sister and Ellar Coltrane as the brother.
(SOUNDBITE FROM FILM, "BOYHOOD")
LORELEI LINKLATER: (As Samantha, singing) Oops I did it again. I played with your heart. I got lost the game. Oh baby, baby. Woops you think I'm in love, I was sent from above.
COLTRANE: (As Mason Jr.) Stop.
LINKLATER: (As Samantha, singing) I'm not that innocent.
COLTRANE: (As Mason Jr.) Quit it.
LINKLATER: (As Samantha, singing) You see my problem is this, I'm dreaming away, wishing that heroes truly exist.
COLTRANE: (As Mason Jr.) Quit it.
LINKLATER: (As Samantha, singing) I cry watching the days. You see I'm a fool, in so many ways.
COLTRANE: (As Mason. Jr.) Mom.
LINKLATER: (As Samantha, singing) But to lose all my senses...
ARQUETTE: (As Olivia) What the hell is going on in here? Do you guys know what time it is?
LINKLATER: (As Samantha, crying) He hit me.
ARQUETTE: (As Olivia) Mason, do not throw things at your sister.
COLTRANE: (As Mason Jr.) She's faking. She hit me first.
ARQUETTE: (As Olivia) Listen, both of you. I'm going back to bed. I don't want to hear another peep out of here for an hour. Go to sleep.
COLTRANE: (As Mason Jr.) Faker.
GROSS: That was Patricia Arquette as the mother. My guess Richard Linklater wrote and directed the movie which is called "Boyhood." So I think that's great, and I was wondering if your daughter Lorelei at the time was singing, "Oops, I Did it Again," around the house. And I was wondering also what you thought of it when she was - when she was singing around the house because you know, Britney Spears was so - kind like of sexualized as a young teen and parents were like, oh my gosh, do I really want my daughter being that sexualized, that young.
LINKLATER: No, my daughter lives in another - at that age lived in another century. She was listening to harpsichord. She's kind of a mediev - a medievalist. So, she wasn't really that familiar with Britney Spears. I mean, she knew the name and I think she had heard the song. She had to kind of learn that for the movie. But she was singing and dancing to her namesake, Marilyn Monroe's character in "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes," singing "Diamonds are a Girl's Best Friend." That she would sing and dance to, at a drop of a hat. She was a big Marilyn Monroe fan at that time. So, I even filmed as a backup, in case it ever got the rights to the Britney Spears song, I had her doing her take of - from "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes." So that's really more who she was.
GROSS: So want to jump ahead in time a few years in the movie - and this is a scene when your daughter, Lorelei Linklater, is in high school. We just heard her when she was about nine, no she's - in this scene she's in high school. And her younger brother's in middle school. And - so in the scene she's with one of her girlfriends talking at home in - in her bedroom and her mother walks in and is really angry that she neglected to do what she promised to do, which is pick up her younger brother from middle school. So here's the scene.
(SOUNDBITE FROM FILM, "BOYHOOD")
ARQUETTE: (As Olivia) Samantha. Why the hell didn't you pick up your brother like you said you would?
LINKLATER: (As Samantha) OK, Mom. Mom, I know you're going to say - she was running late, and we couldn't turn around.
ARQUETTE: (As Olivia) No, no. No excuses. The bottom line is, you didn't do what you say you were going to do. You stranded your brother.
LINKLATER: (As Samantha) It's embarrassing to ask my friend to turn around and get some kid at the middle school.
ARQUETTE: (As Olivia) What do you mean, some kid? He's your brother. And you know what? We've helped Janey out before. I mean, she lives right around the corner, it's no big deal.
LINKLATER: (As Samantha) Sorry
ARQUETTE: (As Olivia) You know what, Samantha? You need to start thinking long and hard about who you want to be. Do you want to be a cooperative person who - who's compassionate and helps people out, or do want to be a self-centered narcissist?
LINKLATER: (As Samantha) You know what? You're right. I am this horrible person, but honestly he's not a baby anymore - you don't have to treat him like one. He's in eighth grade and he can find his way home if he wants to.
ARQUETTE: (As Olivia) You know what? When Gabby leaves, you and me are going to have a chat.
GROSS: That's Lorelei Linklatter and Patricia Arquette in a scene from Richard Linklatter's new movie, "Boyhood." And I - I love just hearing back to back the clip where daughter is like nine, and singing "Oops, I Did it Again," and hearing her in high school - it's much more interesting when you can see it too. So "Boyhood" is not a thriller but I found myself being nervous during a lot of the movie because I was always worrying that the kids will hurt themselves, or get into trouble, or something is going to go wrong. And it made me think - I'm not a parent, but it made me think about how parents probably live their lives that way because there's always so much to worry about when your children are going up.
LINKLATER: It's the worst thing that gets imposed on you as a parent. Like your carefree days are over because - just that part of you - what's that part of the brain that's on the lookout for all danger? I mean that goes on...
GROSS: ...It's called my brain
LINKLATER: Yeah, just your entire brain.
GROSS: Yeah, yeah.
LINKLATER: Yeah. Well, that goes on red alert that - that gets - that knob goes to 11 and you're spending your whole time like, okay how are you going to - your job is to protect your kids, to such a degree. But you see it, we're conditioned. Audiences are conditioned, you know. In the film, there's a scene where these boys are like, throwing these saw blades at a...
LINKLATER: ...Sheet rock I could feel it in audience, and it was the last thing that crossed my mind. It had crossed my mind in the shooting of that that there would be blood, or violence or any mistakes - it was just these guys kind of screwing around. But I felt it in the audience like, this is where the kid falls back on the blade and you know we have to - cuts off a finger or something, but it just - that usually doesn't happen in life, and this thing was so much about kind of - you know most - you get through life and there aren't these huge traumatic - there's a lot of little things. And there's another scene where his dad is warning him, don't drive and text. He is on a little road trip, driving with his girlfriend - she hands him the phone - he looks at a picture while he's driving - OK, here's where the car goes off the highway.
But you see how much were conditioned in our, you know plot-based storytelling to have - to set these things up and pay them off and you realize just how fake that is to life. Most of us do survive do survive childhood. Most of the bad things don't happen. You know, we spend all our lives in fear for these things that never happen. And when things do happen, it's unexpected - it's not the way you thought you would and you realize there's nothing - not much you could have done to prevent it, sometimes. You know, but it's - it's just - you know, it's an unpredictable - there's just a random element to i, but yet you have to be concerned as a parent. So it's - it's - it's a tough trick to maintain.
GROSS: But you're so right that were conditioned in movies to expect like, oh this is where the saw amputates his arm...
GROSS: ...Or this is where the car drives off the road or, yeah.
LINKLATER: It just doesn't happen. But that doesn't mean the film isn't a good drama.
GROSS: But the thing is, sometimes it does hap - sometimes it does happen.
LINKLATER: Sometimes it does, you know. Who gets through childhood without some stitches or a broke - you know, you're going to wear a cast at some point. Something is going to happen. But I just - that itself wasn't that dramatic to me. I was going for the little drama of life where maybe it doesn't feel that dramatic to the - to the parent like, oh we're moving you know just - you're the new kid in school, so what? You know, but for the kid that's - that's highly dramatic - that's traumatic, you know? So, I was trying from the kid's perspective get, just how dramatic you know, life can feel, even though it maybe to another perspective it doesn't feel that way or look that way, but it - it is. It's pretty dramatic. Just getting through life is pretty dramatic.
GROSS: Richard Linklatter will be back in the second half of the show. He wrote and directed the new film "Boyhood." I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with screenwriter and director Richard Linklater. His new film "Boyhood" follows a 6- year-old boy, his 8-year-old sister and their divorced parents through the next 12 years of their lives. Linklater shot the film over the course of 12 years, so we actually see the children grow up before our eyes. Linklater's other movies include "Slacker," "Dazed and Confused," "School of Rock," the "Before Sunrise" trilogy and "Bernie." When we left off, we were talking about "Boyhood."
The parents in "Boyhood" are divorced. They're played by Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke. And so she becomes a single mother. She goes back to school to get a psychology degree and hopes to earn a decent living teaching. But it's very hard on her and on her two children when she's in school because she can't give them the attention that she wants or that they want to have. And it's hard for her to focus on school, too. I read that your mother went back to school when you were growing up. Were your parents divorced?
LINKLATER: Yeah, my mom was a young mom from the late '50s, early '60s. You know, good Catholic girl. She had her kids - I think when she had her third kid, me, she was 22. And I think she was very smart and still wanted an education and all that. So my childhood was my mom in school, my mom graduating. My mom graduated from college when she was, you know, a certain age. And then she got her masters. And then working getting, you know, teaching and then getting a college teaching job. So Patricia's academic career kind of is based sort of on my moms, that element.
But my parents divorced when I was 7, so in this movie they're divorced from the very beginning because I didn't really want the audience to know too much about what happened there, kind of the way the kids - your parent's separation is kind of a mystery. You never know exactly what happened, maybe you never do. But certainly from a kid, you know, point of view you get pulled aside and said OK, well, Daddy's going to live here and, you know, they just kind of explain it to you. But it's kind of a mystery as to what happened between them before the movie starts. And even in the - at the very end of the movie, we're still learning - there'll be a little hint or a little something, we still kind of hear more about that relationship.
GROSS: The character of the father in your movie - the Ethan Hawke character. He kind of disappears for a while. He's in Alaska. And then he comes back and wants to become a presence in his children's lives again. But, you know, he's the kind of father who's, like, a lot of fun to be around and really talkative and he takes them bowling and camping and this and that. But he doesn't have the responsibility that the mother has. So on the one hand, he's very likable. On the other hand, you know, she's got to do all the work. And he reminded me - he could have so easily have been a character, I think, in "Slacker" or "Dazed And Confused," somebody who grows up but is still somehow committed to the life they lived as a teenager. And doesn't quite know how to, like, what he wants as an adult or how to be an adult. And he wants to have a life in music but he isn't really pursuing it. Did you think of him that way? As being - as having...
LINKLATER: Yeah. He follows this wonderful - I think he does mature. You see a guy kind of slowly giving up maybe his dreams of being a songwriter. Or clearly something happened between them that separated him from his family for a while there and his kids. But before the movie starts or within - between the first and second year, when he shows up in the movie, he's clearly made a decision off-screen to be a dad to those kids, you know. He's come back. He wants to be around them geographically and get his act together. And you see him consciously trying to be a good dad. He does love them. And he's trying very hard. But he's kind of, you know, like I said earlier, he's kind of bumbling through parenthood. He's figuring it out but kind of endearingly self-consciously. And I just think he's trying, which as a parent, that's so much of the game, you know, just to try. We're all going to get it wrong anyway, but you have to at least try.
GROSS: When Ethan Hawke has a new girlfriend who he eventually marries in the film, his in-laws - they're really warm and loving, not only to him but to the whole extended family, to his children from another marriage. But they're also, like, so culturally and politically opposite from the Ethan Hawke character. They're very Christian. They're very politically conservative. They have guns. They're culturally opposite. But they're such lovely people. And I thought it was really good that you created these characters who aren't culturally like you or like his character and created two such great people.
LINKLATER: Yeah. I'm glad you see it that way because some people sort of laugh like oh, they're these - his new step-grandparents seem a little, you know, they represent a lot of our country. And it's kind of based loosely on my own step-grandparents who were the sweetest people, who embraced my sisters and I as family immediately and loved us. And they were just wonderful. And yet there was that Christmas at age 13, you know, I call it my redneck bar mitzvah year where, you know, I did get a Bible with my name in it and a shotgun in the same year. And you realize it's just cultural. And most people get guns, they use it sportingly and recreationally, and nothing bad ever happens. You know, you learn safety, like he says. And nothing bad happens with those guns. So that's the vast majority of our culture. And I think a lot of people are sort of afraid of it, but you realize it's just cultural.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Richard Linklater and his new movie is called "Boyhood." Let's take a short break, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: My guest is Richard Linklater. He wrote and directed the new film "Boyhood," and his other films include "Dazed and Confused" and "Slacker" and "Bernie."
I want to ask you about "Bernie" since the story of that movie has become a story for you in real life off the screen. "Bernie" is based on the real story of a mortician who came to a small Texas town to practice. And apparently everybody in town just loved him because he took such good care of the bereaved and did such caring funeral services.
He became very close to an older woman, who in the movie is played by Shirley MacLaine, and the character of Bernie is played by Jack Black. So he becomes very attached to this very wealthy older woman who kind of shows him this new life of fine food and travel around the world and beautiful clothes and stuff. But she becomes so domineering and so much - like treating him as if he's her servant. He kind of like snaps and actually shoots her to death and hides her for several months in the freezer until her body's discovered. He stood trial, he was found guilty, sentenced to life. But recently, tell us what happened.
LINKLATER: Well, God, it's been such an interesting, crazy journey. You know, I made that movie...
GROSS: You know what? Before you tell us what happened, I'm going to play a scene where Bernie's...
LINKLATER: OK, sure.
GROSS: ...So this is the scene in which he's being interrogated by a police officer, and it's in this scene that he actually confesses to the murder. The police officer starts first.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BERNIE")
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Police Officer) How long you been thinking about killing her, Bernie?
JACK BLACK: (As Bernie) I never thought of me killing Mrs. Nugent. I - I guess I fantasized about her death, but I was never the one responsible for it. She always died accidentally - like in a car accident or falling down the escalator at the mall in Longview. I was always the one weeping by her open casket, comforting others, being comforted myself.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Police Officer) Why'd you want her dead, Bernie?
BLACK: (As Bernie) She had become so mean and possessive of me. I couldn't face being around her any longer. And then it just happened. I don't know. I shot her. I shot poor Mrs. Nugent four times with the armadillo gun.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Police Officer) Then what?
BLACK: (As Bernie) Well, then the Lord called her home. I know I done wrong, and I must atone for my sins.
GROSS: Jack Black playing Bernie Tiede in a film directed and cowritten by my guest, Richard Linklater - great scene, great performance from Jack Black.
LINKLATER: Yeah, Jack is incredible, just incredible.
GROSS: Yeah and so that's based on real life.
LINKLATER: Pretty much.
GROSS: And he was serving a life sentence and that was changed. He's out now and living in your garage apartment. Why was the case reopened? Was it your movie?
LINKLATER: Well, the movie was kind of the linchpin to that. It's funny, it's not a documentary, you know? It's just this kind of dark comedy. And it was a case I followed.
I went to the trial back in '99 and I felt there was a movie there. I was so fascinated with that relationship and the whole culture surrounding it. And ultimately, it's a very interesting legal case that's portrayed in the movie. They moved the trial because he's too well-liked, which no one's ever heard of. They - he gets a very - from going from almost maybe getting off for the killing, he is punished in my mind and many others like way too much. He gets a life sentence for what was clearly kind of a - I don't know, to me and many others, it felt like a - definitely a murder with circumstances, kind of an abusive relationship. There was a lot going on, you know, between them that led to the tragedy.
We had gotten to know Bernie. We went and visited him in prison and it sort of confirmed what I felt all along - that he wasn't the psychopath. He actually was the nicest guy in the world who had been driven to do this act. And it kind of begged the question, if the nicest guy could do that, what about the rest of us? Are we all capable of that, you know, given the right circumstances, the right abusive relationship? Maybe we are. And that was very intriguing to me. But the film doesn't really advocate, it just lays out, you know, what actually happened. A lot of that's based on the real transcript and what I saw at the trial, and no one really doubts it.
But a lawyer saw the movie, we started talking to her - Jodi Cole, there in Austin. And she had a real sensitivity toward abuse, I think.
GROSS: But the lawyer you're talking about did some investigation and found evidence that convinced her that he had been sexually abused as a child and that led to a dissociative experience is I think the language?
LINKLATER: Well, it was one more piece of a puzzle - a psychological puzzle that you always wonder, what would drive someone? You know, when the abused victim finally lashes back and kills the abuser, the question is always whether it's the wife killing the husband or you know - whatever, it's very complex relationships.
But like the obvious question is well, why didn't he just leave? They're dead and you're going to prison. You know, why didn't you just leave? It makes so much sense to the rest of us. But Jack Black asked Bernie that question and he answered it. He was like, Oh, you know, I couldn't do that. I mean, I was her only friend, you know? I mean, I was all she had. As much as she was torturing him to death, he loved her enough and felt for her because he was this compassionate person - was and is. And what would lead to that, as Jodi surmised when she found a few books about surviving sexual abuse and that when Bernie was young, there was an uncle in his life. He and a cousin and...
GROSS: She found books in his - that he owned about surviving sexual abuse?
LINKLATER: Yeah, and Bernie had never brought it up, you know, because I think it's something you just don't talk about. But it all kind of contributed to a bigger picture of, OK, well, he survived abusive himself. And that doesn't give you license to kill, but it's - a lot of people do survive a lot of trauma and don't do that, but it gives further explanation, I think. It puts it - it provides a context. When presented with that and given that Bernie had served 17 years, you know, I think that all led to a judge in our legal system kind of seeing it in a different way and thinking, well, he had served time. And there was a group of us who, if Bernie were to get out or that be a possibility, you know, I'd say, sure, he can live in my garage apartment...
GROSS: Yeah, well, that's what you offered. You offered to have him live in your garage apartment and that was one of the conditions of his release. So I'm wondering how has that changed your life to have the subject of your film, who is a confessed murderer under extenuating circumstances, now being your tenant and neighbor?
LINKLATER: All that other stuff doesn't matter. I'm just happy for Bernie that he's a citizen in the world, that he has a job, that he's reconnected with friends.
GROSS: What's his job?
LINKLATER: He's a paralegal. He got training. He's a very intelligent man, so I'm just happy to help in any way. And it's kind of an open-ended arrangement. He can stay as long as he needs to.
GROSS: Richard Linklater, thank you so much.
LINKLATER: Yeah, thank you for having me. Good talking to you.
GROSS: Richard Linklater wrote and directed the new film, "Boyhood." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.