The Iris Interview: Actor Ellar Coltrane and Producer Cathleen Sutherland talk Boyhood at Sydney Film Festival

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Chris Singh caught up with lead actor Ellar Coltrane and producer Cathleen Sutherland of the unique film Boyhood to gain some insight into how this unprecedented project came together during the 12 years it took to make, what Ellar’s mentality was like during filming, and what they have both learnt from working on it.

Directed by Richard Linklater, the film tracks the development of the fictional character Mason (played by Coltrane) as he grows from the age of 6 to the age of 18. The film also stars Ethan Hawke, Patricia Arquette and Richard’s own daughter Lorelei Linklater.

I’ll start with a question you’ve probably been asked over and over again. What was the whole experience like for you, Ellar?

Cathleen: That’s one of them! *turns to Ellar*

Ellar: That’s definitely one of them [laughs] and that’s the one that’s almost impossible to answer because it’s kind of incomparable to anything, for me anyway. It was incredibly formative in the long run, looking back it feels more like a summer camp or some kind of very bizarre art class rather than a job or a film. It also was just incredibly personal and friendly….it was really wonderful!

What was the experience like behind the scenes, Cathleen?

Cathleen: It was a great experience it was very much like a family environment. We had the same crew that would come back – though we went through about 450 people over the course of the 12 years – a lot of people worked on it over and over again. There was a group of us that was on it the whole time and getting to collaborate with Rick and learning from him and watching his method…watching Patricia act…I really loved watching Particia act! And Ethan as well.

Watching Ellar grow up too. My daughter is 6 months younger than Ellar so it was like raising my own daughter and raising a film at the same time. I had these two things that were the two big commitments in my life and they both kind of came to the same conclusion at the same time. My daughter went off to college when Mason went to college and the film finished up. It’s been such a wonderful project and it’s great to be part of something I believe so much in. Quite so often people end up doing something they don’t really believe in…so it was profound for me. A very profound experience.

Ellar: Getting to be a part of anything, where everyone involved is just so happy to be working and being a part of it, is just so great. Even the people who were only there for one year…by the end of that weekend they were part of the family. And that’s how all of life should be, it was just really wonderful to be around that energy of people doing something they really believe in.

What age did it dawn on you the gravity of what’s happening, Ellar?

Ellar: Very gradual! It’s still dawning on me day by day doing promotion and everything. It’s a lot to wrap my head around. Around the age of 13-15 is when it kind of started to present itself to me – how big a part of my life it really was and how profound of an effect the project had on me and who I am as a person. Just being young, you don’t really think of things in that way, and how they are going to affect you and your personality.

Was there anything you kept telling yourself to keep you on track?

Ellar: Rick would kind of contact me throughout the year [they filmed for several days a year] and keep me on track in some way. He has a very strange way of doing things, but it worked! Also, it was just such a wonderful energy on the set…casual and friendly, so it was always a treat to get to go back.

How much did the character of Mason affect you in real life and how much of yourself did you pour into Mason?

Ellar: It was a two-way thing really. I don’t know necessarily how much Mason the character affected me as much as just working on the project affected me – which it definitely did very profoundly. As I got older and Mason got older my personality started to bleed onto the screen much more so. So that’s strange to think about, that being in this film shaped me and then the film reflected the person that I became as a result of working the film.

Was it always in the back of your mind whenever you made a life choice how it would affect the movie?

Ellar: Not really I didn’t have to think about it very much, I’d cut my hair if I wanted to but I did ask Rick before I pierced my ears! It’s kind of cruel to tell a child that they can’t cut their hair but *turns to Cathleen* you guys still did it!

Cathleen: It was only because we needed that moment at a particular time!

Ellar: That was the funny thing about that scene. I was so happy to get my hair cut but Mason’s feelings didn’t really reflect that [laughs].

Cathleen, a movie that’s so unique must have difficulties that you’ve never experienced before as a producer. What were some of these difficulties?

Cathleen: Getting it done for the amount of budget that we had definitely. A lot of people worked very hard, with it being a low-budget project, but that just showed the level of commitment. The logistics of it as well; you’re not setting something up [conventionally]…when I look back at how many months we had over 12 years, if you’re saying that there’s 1-2 months per year of pre-production you’re looking at 2 years of pre-production to make a movie that we then shot for 49 days.

It was never set time it was just always juggling like… when are we going to do this, when is everybody’s schedules going to come together and be able to create this one pocket of time where we can all slip inside of and get this done. Every year we completed it I would just have a big sense of relief…but when it came to the end and we were close to done it was very bittersweet, to know that like ‘is this it? Is this all there is?

And that it was going to be shared and shown to the rest of the world. And people were going to have their opinions on it. That was also a little scary. You put all your energy and heart into something and you hope people receive it in kindness, and it’s been so wonderful that it has. That’s been a real joy that people come up after screenings and they are all so appreciative and just want to say the nicest things. It feels really good that for all that perseverance and labour, something came out of it all that people are really enjoying. That means a lot, I wish that all projects could be like that – not 12 years long though!

Ellar, what was it like watching the entire film at the end of it all? Are you glad Richard never let you watch it as it developed?

Ellar: Yeah definitely. I mean, it bends my mind now to watch it. It’s taken my months to really get over and comprehend what it means to me and how it affects me too, in a sense I’m watching myself grow up in a completely abstract way. I mean it’s a lot of me to experience in a way that a lot of people don’t…a lot of people don’t see themselves in that way so it would have been a lot to handle at a younger age and if nothing else it would have absolutely affected the way I approached working on the film. It would have given me this whole new awareness of the camera and the product and everything which I almost entirely avoided, everything remained very casual throughout all of the production.

What do you feel like it’s taught you each, being part of such a unique movie?

Cathleen: I’ve learned that you can make a movie but that doesn’t mean that everyone will get to see it. There’s such a difference between the amount of money and having everyone behind it…distribution is a whole ‘nother thing…really it’s about people being able to go see the movie and having access to it.

There’s so many wonderful films out there that get made and never get seen, so it’s really made me reflect on that. I feel like in this project we have been so fortunate because people really, really want to see it, so hopefully they will have the opportunity too.

Alot of average people would think that you make a movie and then people get to go see it, but that’s not how it always works, I mean you’re [Chris] sitting here and you’re part of the process now!

Ellar: I learned a very great deal but the most useful thing is a lot of patience… to commit yourself to something for that long. If our reason for making the film had been to have this big popular movie someday, we would have lost our minds quickly. It was valuable to learn how to remove the end goal from the process and just ‘do it to do it’. And that’s what art is about is, it’s just the process of creating, not about the painting or the song or the movie, it’s about making the art.

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Boyhood’s final screening at Sydney Film Festival takes place on Sunday 15 June 6:30pm at Event Cinemas. For more information click HERE

Our review of Boyhood can be found HERE