FORT WORTH, Texas - Richard Linklater is the first to admit that "Boyhood," his acclaimed movie tracing the arc of a suburban Houston boy's maturation from the age of 6 to 18, could have been a colossal failure.
Filmed a few weeks each year over the course of 12 years, the entire project could have been sidelined by any of life's misadventures.
The adult actors, including parents Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette, could have had other movie-making obligations. The child actors, especially newcomer star Ellar Coltrane as Mason, the boy at the movie's heart, and their parents could have had second thoughts halfway through this cinematic experiment. Most distressingly, someone playing one of the main characters could have had suffered serious injuries or died during such a long period of time.
"When you're collaborating with time, you don't know what's going to happen," the director / writer says by phone from his Austin home base. "But you know something is going to happen."
But that knowledge wasn't enough to deter Linklater - the director who has sketched a portrait of an ongoing romantic relationship through the movies "Before Sunrise," "Before Sunset" and "Before Midnight" - from sticking to his vision of chronicling adolescence in something resembling real time.
"I wanted to tell a film about childhood, about growing up but all of my ideas were too dispersed over so many years. I couldn't pick a moment and a 7-year-old can't play a 14-year-old," he remembers of his first attempts to come up with something around the turn of the century. "I had almost given up on the idea. And then the idea hit me, and the idea came fully formed that the movie would go from year to year, he would gradually age, and go off to college. It all came in one kind of intense little flash."
He then shared his inspiration with Hawke, a friend who has been in several of Linklater's movies, and Arquette, who was in the director's "Fast Food Nation."
"Actors are brave. Ethan and Patricia jumped in quickly," Linklater says. "A kid, however, can't really fathom the thing. You're really dealing with the parents. ... Coltrane was an actor, he had cool parents and they thought it was a potentially positive thing in their lives. It was a huge leap of faith. He even says that it was not until year five or six that he realized what it was. How can a 7-year-old even comprehend 12 years of life?"
In fact, Linklater's daughter, Lorelei, who plays Mason's sister, came close to pulling the plug on the whole thing by declaring at one point that she wanted Linklater to kill off her character.
"I'm still traumatized by John Amos being killed off (the sitcom) 'Good Times,'" laughs Linklater, who says he never entertained Lorelei's idea. "She was no longer the 8-year-old bopping around and she didn't want to do it anymore. Ultimately, the film was a very different experience for everyone and meant different things at different times. Ellar never wavered. To give (Lorelei) credit, she rallied and was fine. Then she was looking forward to the film. It was, 'Hey, when are we going to do the next one?'"
Outside of his daughter drama, in some ways, the long-haul approach was less nerve-wracking than the usual filmmaking process. "It was an ongoing art project," he says. "It wasn't like a movie. There was no release date. There were no pressures. It was so freeing to have that gestation time between years. I could edit, think about it, and talk to the cast about it."
Linklater didn't have a set-in-stone script but he knew where he wanted the story to go. While it's not meant to be autobiographical, "Boyhood" is steeped in the sense of place that comes from someone who intimately knows the physical and cultural landscape of the place he's writing about. Like Mason, Linklater - who turns 54 on July 30 - grew up and came of age in Houston before moving to Austin to study film.
"I had a strong structure," he says. "I knew what the last shot would be. It was novelistic. (What could change from year to year) was getting from somewhere to the next point, where we were picking up with them, how to make it flow, and tonal shifts."
Of course, getting a crew, producers and a studio to stay with the project offered the potential for an entirely new set of problems.
"I had crew members go out of their way to work on it. Everyone was invested in it," he says.
As for a studio, IFC was quick to commit to the low-budget ($2.4 million) movie. "I had done two films with IFC, 'Waking Life' and 'Tape' ... and there was a guy there who liked the idea," Linklater says. "It wasn't that much money every year and, at the end of it, there would be something unique."
Despite the good fortune of being able to keep his cast and financing intact for a dozen years, the end result might not have been worth the effort. So it's been especially rewarding that "Boyhood," even before it opens, has been so well-received.
It's not the first time Linklater's films have been championed - his resume includes such critical faves as "Dazed and Confused," "Bernie" and "Slacker" as well as the more mainstream "School of Rock" - but the intensity of the adoration is out of the ordinary.
The movie has enjoyed an enthusiastic reception at festivals all over the world. The Daily Beast has dubbed it "an American masterpiece," Rolling Stone hailed it as "the best movie of the year," and Entertainment Weekly said "it's almost Joycean in its appreciation of the scruffy magic of everyday life."
While all the praise feels good, Linklater says he's still nervous about whether moviegoers will show up.
"We're an indie film coming out in the summer. By definition, it's counter-programming, but you can always get lost in the glut of releases," he says. "But my last two films played in the summer so it seems to be working.
"And kids, 17 to 25, like this movie a lot. They love that this movie is their life."