Coming of age with the Boyhood script

Spoilers ahead.

Scriptic Clues is intended as an educational site, not a collection of reviews. Like a good student, I’m going to expect that you’ve come prepared; all of my analyses will assume that you’ve seen the film already. If you haven’t, or the film isn’t fresh in your memory, I strongly recommend you go and watch it first to get the most out of this site.

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Why I chose this script

Does this question even need answering? Boyhood is one of the most ambitious film projects to come out of Hollywood in as long as I can remember, and deserves to be thought through and discussed on every level. Of course the 12 year production process also required a unique approach to screenwriting, so all the more reason for us to learn as much as we can from the Boyhood script.

In defense of fluff

Coming of age stories aren’t exactly untrodden turf in the realms of film. When Richard Linklater decided to tell the story of a young boy’s life, there were any number of stories out there that he could’ve looked to for inspiration.

But he chose to strike out on his own for the Boyhood script and not tell a story, per se, but instead offer a window into a life with nary a three act structure to be found. This decision manifests itself in a few ways, including what I came to call “pointless” scenes.

A case in point would be one scene where Dad (Hawke) drops Mason (Coltrane) and Samantha (Linklater) off at their mom’s after spending the weekend with him. Loosely, the scene beats are:

  • Dad offers the kids a loving goodbye.
  • Mason goes inside.
  • Samantha tells Dad about a sleepover during the next weekend they’re supposed to see each other.
  • Samantha thanks Dad for a great weekend and goes inside.

Now, neither Samantha’s sleepover nor the mentioned weekend actually figure in the rest of the Boyhood script in any way, shape or form. Yes, we see that Dad clearly loves his kids, and that the feeling is mutual, but it doesn’t rally move the ball forward in terms of plot. A “pointless” scene.

I use quotation marks because, of course, these moments are not pointless. They’re the fabric of life. It is entirely fitting that Linklater’s chronical of a young man’s life be made up of such moments. It’s also really quite revolutionary.

Although Hollywood is known for spectacle and bombast, what it really strives for (like any commercial activity) is efficiency. How to tell the tightest possible story without any fluff or dead weight. It’s a noble pursuit, because it keeps films lively and entertaining from start to finish. It’s also a pursuit I wish they would relent on sometimes.

I actually wish there was little more of that fluff in movies because, as the Boyhood script shows, it’s the stuff that life is made of. If you strip all of it out, what you end up with is a situation where everything is important. Every line of dialogue is either setting up or paying off some aspect of the plot. Every camera move is meaningful. Sounds great on paper, but it removes any kind of contrast. If all moments are important, none of them are. It also makes for very predictable films.

Before my soapbox carries me away completely, let me offer the only piece of advice that I can for writers to improve this state of affairs. It uses a loophole which I alluded to in discussing the scene above. I think “fluff” is still moderately tolerable if it furthers our understanding of the characters and they, in turn, drive the plot. I’m not saying that you should stick 30 pages of character exploration in your next script, but a vignette or two that tells us something we don’t know about the character is probably palatable and might do wonders for reducing telegraphing in your writing.

Leaps in time

This isn’t a short film, and the Boyhood script is no pamphlet either. But it condenses 12 years of living down into two and a half hours of film, so that didn’t really come as a surprise. However the jumps in time that the film makes as it follows Mason’s life had a few interesting effects on the reading experience.

Most notably, it hugely magnified this sense of being an omniscient outsider who occasionally dipped into Mason’s world to see what had changed. It got me thinking about why that feeling was so much stronger in the Boyhood script and what it stands in contrast to when reading other stories.

Most films don’t track their characters in real time, but usually cuts happen when the next step logically follows on from the current scene. Character decides to go somewhere, we cut to them getting out of their car. Characters show a romantic interest in each other, we cut to one of them asking the other out or maybe their first date.

The Boyhood script doesn’t tread quite that lightly though. Using that last example: at one point we see Mom (Arquette) flirting with her college professor and then we cut to them arriving back from their honeymoon. While the difference may only be the amount of time elapsed during the cut, that difference is meaningful.

The way it feels is the difference between a good friend who you see on a regular basis and an equally good friend who you only get to catch up with a few times per year. In the first instance, your conversations aren’t dominated by what’s happened in your lives, because the other person was there for a lot of it. It’s more about how things happen. But with the distant friend you’re not able to get to that level because they weren’t there, weren’t a part of it.

So it’s worth thinking about the relationship you want your audience to have with your story. If you want them to feel like they’re a part of it and to get immersed, don’t go for big jumps in time and expect them to infer details. If, on the other hand, you want to foster more of an omniscient watcher relationship, feel free to take long strides through the time and space of your world.

Spartan scene description

Around page 130 I started noticing how little scene description was being used. It was one of those “can’t be unseen” things, where suddenly I was seeing it everywhere. The thing is, I can’t figure out whether I just didn’t notice it for the first two thirds of the script or whether Richard Linklater’s writing changed during the 12 years of production.

Linklater’s scene description wasn’t as verbose as, for example, Jeff Nichols’ from the start, but I really think I would’ve noticed it had it been this extreme. To show you what I’m talking about, here’s a two page scene that I’ve removed all the dialogue from, leaving only the scene description:

INT. MOM’S HOUSE – DAY

Mom sits at the kitchen table surrounded by bills and papers. Mason comes down the stairs.

Dialogue

Mason prepares cereal.

Dialogue

Mason starts to walk away.

Dialogue

Mason walks over to the sink.

It’s not just that scene either, this one was three and a half pages long:

INT. MOM’S HOUSE – DAY

Mason sits on the stairs video chatting with Dad on his phone.

Dialogue

Mason laughs.

Dialogue

Dad pans the phone to Annie and baby.

Dialogue

Mom comes down the stairs and drops a bag at Mason’s feet.

Dialogue

She kisses his forehead.

Dialogue

Mason exits.

I tend to write pretty dialogue heavy pieces, but even I’m not that frugal with my scene description. I definitely would’ve noticed if it had been like that from page one. So I do believe that Linklater’s style of writing changed over the course of production.

I think that what you see on the page when you read the Boyhood script is the process of someone becoming an experienced Hollywood filmmaker. I mentioned, in my post about Locke, how the pros play by a different rulebook than we do and I think this is a prime example of what that means in real terms.

You hear a lot about the need for new writers to ‘find their voice’ in order to make themselves stand out, and it’s a good point. What you hear less of is how styles change over time. It’s ok, and even a good thing, for personal style to change over time. It’s usually the result of growth and experience as to what’s extraneous and not. Your voice as a writer can survive these changes as long as they’re made consciously and deliberately.

Names versus roles

One last point that I want to make is another one about naming characters. The more I read and write for this site the more I become fascinated by how different writers approach this decision.

The Boyhood script is an interesting case because of two characters: Mom and Dad. Despite the fact that the characters’ names are revealed in dialogue, they are referred to by their roles as seen by the kids throughout the script. This also goes for characters such as Grandma (Villari), Grandpa Cliff (Richard Andrew Jones) and Nana (Karen Jones).

This decision certainly doesn’t do us readers any favors (it took me forever to remember that Grandma at Mason’s graduation party was Mom’s mother) so it must serve some other purpose. I would hazard a guess that it was to force Mason’s perspective of the characters onto us, but that’s nothing more than a hunch.

In summation

Films have become so lean that it’s starting to make them predictable. One way to get around that is to add in a touch more character exploration to contrast the major plot points. To make your audience feel like part of the story, avoid large leaps in time that cause them to fill in blanks on their own. Your style of writing will likely change over the years and that’s a sign of growth, just don’t let it detract from your voice as a writer. When to name characters or not is not a cut and dry subject, Boyhood provides an interesting example by obfuscating the character names to serve the protagonist’s perspective.

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