Guardians of the Galaxy and Mockingjay might be the year’s biggest movies, but 2014, in many important ways, has also been the year of Boyhood. Since it debuted in January at the Sundance Film Festival to rhapsodic reviews, Richard Linklater’s 12-years-in-the-making story of a boy (Ellar Coltrane) and his family has forged a deep bond with audiences and critics alike. From Sundance, it went to Berlin in February, where it won several awards, and then reveled in a euphoric homecoming at March’s SXSW Festival in Austin. It opened in July in the heart of blockbuster season, and is still humming along 22 weeks later, already earning more than six times its $4 million budget. Now, with awards season shifting into high gear, Boyhood might actually be the Oscar frontrunner after critics groups in New York, Los Angeles, and Boston named it the best film of the year.
Boyhood is about a boy named Mason from the ages of 6 to 18, but it would require just minor editing to reframe it as Motherhood. Patricia Arquette plays Olivia, the divorced mother-of-two who pulls herself up by her bootstraps to provide a life for Mason and his sister, Samantha (Lorelei Linklater). It is almost as much her movie as Mason’s, because her arc, from an overwhelmed single mom to a successful college professor—with a couple bad marriages thrown in between—is so raw and riveting. Olivia is courageous and vulnerable, and Arquette is so powerfully authentic, perhaps because of 12 years of her own life experiences that paralleled the production of the film: her own new baby, a teenage son leaving the nest, a new marriage and a divorce. “This movies means so much to me personally,” she says, “and the people in it mean so much to me personally because it’s a movie about kids growing up and families and human beings, and it’s kind of a love story to the working class.”
Arquette has been the one to beat in the Best Supporting Actress Oscar race since January’s premiere, and recent year-end prizes have provided additional momentum. With Boyhood poised for Digital HD release tomorrow (Dec. 9)—the Blu-ray/DVD arrives on Jan. 6—Arquette spoke to EW about her amazing Boyhood experience, struggling to say goodbye, and the house fire that kept the project going.
EW: I remember speaking to Ethan in summer 2013—right after Before Midnight came out—and he let slip that he was working on this project with Rick for like a decade and he couldn’t wait for everyone to see it. That was the first time I’d heard anything about it. How did you not blab this to people. Did people just not care, is that what made it easy?
PATRICIA ARQUETTE: That’s the weird thing. Apparently, me and Ethan weren’t really supposed to say anything about it—but we did. And people weren’t really very interested for some weird reason. They’d say, “Oh, well, what are you doing?” “I’m working on this movie that we’re a shooting a week a year for 12 years.” “Oh. Well what is it about?” “It’s about a family; it’s about a boy growing up.” “Okay, well what happens?” “Well… a boy grows up and…” [Laughs] “Okay, whatever, good luck with that.” They just didn’t care, quite frankly.
When it finally was introduced to the world at Sundance, do you recall what you were thinking and feeling when you watched it with that audience?
It was sort of like putting your own family movies out or something, because I felt so connected to everybody at that point. And it was strange because the way the script worked, I would just have the scenes that I was in every year. So suddenly, not only was I watching the movie for the first time, but my character was watching the movie for the first time. That was very surreal because suddenly my character, while she had a lot of resentments towards her ex-husband, she also got to see what an incredible dad he was. And it was also weird because I was also seeing our personal lives—”Oh right, that was the year that Ethan got married again, and that’s the year I had my daughter, that’s the year Rick had his twins.” So it was sort of like watching it with many brains at the same time.
That was the first time you watched it, at Sundance?
Yes. We didn’t really know what we were getting into, but we all knew we already loved the movie, and that the experience of making the movie was really incredible for all of us. But it had this subtle movement to it, this subtle beauty and a cumulative power to it, that I wasn’t sure if everyone would understand that. Because Rick had chosen so many times to go against the grain of conventional storytelling. And I agreed with that choice, but it was a radically brave choice to make—especially when you have 12 years to second guess yourself.
That initial reception was pretty bonkers. It’s one of the great cinematic viewing experiences of my lifetime.
Oh, my God. It blew our minds. You could feel it [in the Eccles Theater]. There were 20-year-old kids crying. There were 50-year-olds crying. They were all moved by this movie. And Rick and Ellar said, “The weird thing is we made this movie with that kind of love and it was met with the same kind of love we made it with.”
Rewind a bit to 2001 or so: this is a hugely ambitious for a filmmaker—for any filmmaker—and Rick had done Dazed and Confused and the first Before Sunrise film and Waking Life—
Right. But this was a huge leap of faith on your part. Did he really call you up out of the blue and just say, “What are you doing the next 12 years?“
What gave you the confidence to say yes?
First of all, I already really wanted to work with him as a filmmaker. I just thought he had a different, interesting voice. So that was the first thing, but the second thing was, when he explained this idea of watching a boy go from first grade to 12th grade, I already had a son by that point. And I’d already seen how fast it’d gone. I’d already had the little goings away that happen along the life of a child: your first day of school, the first time you let them sleep at someone else’s house. All of those little moments that you go through as passages together. And I’d seen how fast that it happened with my son, and to me, it was the most beautiful thing I’d ever experienced—and difficult. So to see that happen in a movie seemed like an incredible idea. I just couldn’t believe he could get the financing.
Right? Hats off to IFC for saying, “Sure, here’s a check.”
Absolutely. I mean, there was the year where they had closed the books for the year and forget we were making it. [Laughs]
You’re kidding. When?
It was close to the end [in 2011]. Rick called and he’s like, “Oh yeah, we’re getting ready to do this [again].” And they’re like, “Oh no, we closed the books already.” Rick, who is the perfect leader and this mellow, calm, steady force, was like, “Oh, luckily, my house just burned down so I’ll just pay for it out of my insurance and then you can pay me back. [Laughs]
So what saved the movie was his house burning down? Do we need to start an investigation into whether Rick burned his house down on purpose to pay for his movie?
Oh, my god, no. [Laughs] But it was pretty crazy, and that was the level of commitment. Most people don’t literally take the money from their own home to make sure a movie keeps going.
Everyone talks about the risk of hiring a kid who might change his mind during the course of making a movie for 12 years. But it’s also fair to ask you and Ethan the same thing. This was a big investment of your time. What if in Year 5, you said, “You know what, I have these three other projects; sorry, but I can’t do it this year.” Were there any of those doubts or temptations?
No. There never was. I really always believed in the project and Rick. Even the first year just felt beautiful with the kids and with Ethan and just the way of working like that. It really was kind of the ideal way of working, really collaboratively together. I can understand though—like that would be another reason why people wouldn’t risk [financing] this movie. First of all the budget: they wouldn’t see a return for so many years. But then, secondarily, you are at risk for people holding you hostage or asking for more money or saying they don’t want to do it. You had to have a certain kind of person and luckily we were all that kind of people. But really, I looked forward to it and we all looked forward to it every year.
From year to year, would you go back and look at tape from the previous year to recalibrate where your character should be, or was it just natural from what you read on the page?
Ethan would watch just about every year. I saw a rough cut of the first five years. That’s all I saw. I didn’t want to see any more. I felt like Olivia was in the process of growing as a person and I understood who she was inside. And I wanted her to grow every year, to grow with the project. So I wanted to be open to that. I mean, it took a weird opposite discipline of the way you usually work on movies as an actor. Usually, you really depend on the script to figure out where your character is going. And I said to Ethan pretty early on: If this was all shot in one year and I had to play a 45-year-old when I was 33 or whatever, I would’ve played it so differently than it really was. There is an element of wisdom that comes with time and weariness that comes with time that I think was helpful. But I always knew who she was. And it was interesting also to discover the way she wasn’t growing.
What do you mean?
There’s a part of [Olivia] that doesn’t always recognize the impact that she has on other people. To see elements of that stay the same is really interesting. Like, I think Ethan’s character and my character still have their blind spots. You’re ever growing up. It just doesn’t seem to ever end. It’s not just the kids growing up. He still has his concepts about women that aren’t completely developed by the end of the movie; she has emotional things she goes through or through with her kids that maybe isn’t the greatest thing for them at that moment.
That makes me think of the ugly chapter with Bill, the second husband who is a drinker and violent. Was that year’s work’s tone very different or more difficult?
Well, that was an interesting another part of it, because the kids hadn’t really had any experience of domestic violence or what that is, so we didn’t want to scare them—but we had to talk about it. They were aware of it in the world, and we talked about what it is to be the person to kind of tell those kid stories. They knew kids went through that, and they wanted to tell that story, but there would be moments where I’d be preparing myself [for an emotional scene], and they’d come up like, “How do you cry?” Usually, you’re not talking to another actor right before you roll. You’re just like in your space. But all of us were trying to teach them, so I’d be like, “Okay, sit next to me. Here’s what I’m doing…”
Fast-forwarding to the end, what was it like for you on the day you said goodbye to the crew and especially Rick and the kids?
It was really intense. And honestly, I’m the kind of person that really likes endings. I like movies to be done. I like to be finished with them. Not this movie. The whole last year, I was complaining and telling Rick this wasn’t a 12-year movie—this was a 20-year movie. [Laughs] That I wasn’t okay with finishing. It was really hard for me. Frankly, it’s still hard for me.
So if Rick called you tomorrow and said, “Don’t say anything yet, but we’re going to check in on these characters in seven years, just like Before Sunset or the 7-Up series. Are you in?”
Oh yeah, I already told him. We’ve all told him. But whenever anyone asks Rick, it’s sort of like asking a woman while she’s crowning in labor, “Hey, do you want to have another kid?” It’s like, “Can you get out of my face and let me push this baby out of here before you start asking me about the next one?” [Laughs]
Well, at least with Boyhood enjoying the awards season, there’s probably many opportunities to have mini reunions.
Yeah, I’ve actually probably seen them more this year than I’ve seen them in 12 years. It’s really nice. As an actor, a lot of times people come to you, and they have no money, and they have this idea that might be interesting. And they say it’ll be collaborative, but often times it’s not collaborative really, at the end of the day. They say that to get you to agree. Especially as a woman, I find often it’s really not collaborative and it’s unfortunate. But this movie truly was collaborative. This movie was very like-minded people working together in a very similar way, and I doubt if I’ll ever have an experience like that again.