The 160-minute movie tells the story of Mason (Ellar Coltrane) as he grows from age 6 to 18, along with his sister Samantha (Linklater's daughter Lorelei) and his divorced parents (Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette).
To capture the passage of time, Linklater filmed a little bit each year, beginning in 2002 and wrapping last fall.
In the The City in May being honored for directing at the San Francisco International Film Festival, Linklater said he was trying to represent each school year, up until the character goes to college.
"It was usually somewhere between nine and 18 months between shooting," he says. "A lot of it was just the practical thing of getting people together."
He continues, "The blessing was to have that time to think about it. We'd edit everything we shot, and attach it to the previous years and I could watch it and think about it. I had a pretty strong structure for the whole piece, but it was the details. What do we need? Where is it going?"
Because of its unique structure, the movie doesn't employ the typical set-up/payoff format. For example, if Mason meets some bullies at school, viewers may never see them again.
"You realize how audiences are geared to think like that," he says. "I'm not trying to frustrate people, but the odds of something catastrophic happening are pretty low. 'Ordinary People' could have been my title."
According to Linklater, his young star grew up into a fascinating young man. "He speaks so eloquently," he says. "He said, 'This was my childhood. Even though it was part of a movie, and it wasn't real, it was real to me.'"
As for his daughter Lorelei, Linklater says in the beginning, she was a little extrovert, growing up on movie sets and singing and dancing. But about 3-4 years into the project, she had had enough. But things worked out naturally. As Linklater used less of her, the Mason character begins to explore on his own.
Probably the most moving aspect of "Boyhood," however, is watching Mason slowly learning to balance imagination and reality, as evidenced by an early scene in which he observes that wasps come from rocks.
"It feels like you start off in childhood with all those magical possibilities, and then the more you learn, it narrows, and then the more you learn it widens again," Linklater says. "What's really there is better than anything you could have imagined."
IF YOU GO
Starring Ellar Coltrane, Ethan Hawke, Patricia Arquette, Lorelei Linklater
Written and directed by Richard Linklater
Running time 2 hours, 40 minutes