An update on Boyhood OR When Ethan Hawke locked eyes with me from across a room

I had blogged about Boyhood when I watched it a couple of years ago. In it, I had said

Boyhood makes me think of a larger point. The way we remember things doesn’t have to be coherent, neat sequences of events. But, at least in my head, the way I remember things is like a story ready to be narrated to someone else. So there’s this beginning and middle and end and I make them tie together. It might be because I blog and write a diary, it might be because that’s the only sort of narrative I come across. It makes me wonder how much of how we think is shaped by how we see others narrate stories. It is oddly freeing, after watching this movie, to know that patterns of my thoughts don’t have to have a point or a narrative.

Yesterday, I had the luck to attend this session at SFIFF which was a tribute to Ethan Hawke. There was a conversation with Ethan Hawke, before a screening of Maudie.

While I’ll write more about that in another post, I want to focus on the fact that I GOT TO ASK ETHAN HAWKE A QUESTION ABOUT THIS VERY THING, and that his response was inspiring and satisfying.

Towards the end of that conversation, Michael Almereyda (who had directed Hawke in Hamlet) said they would open it up to the audience for questions. Immediately, I knew what I wanted to ask. As I walked to the mic, and as I waited my turn, my heart was in my mouth.

I said, all stories seem to have a structure to their narrative. There’s a setup, a reveal, a twist, a conclusion tying it all up. There’s Chekov’s Gun. But Boyhood doesn’t do that. Like there’s an axe in a scene, and no one gets hurt. There isn’t a satisfying conclusion that ties it all up. The only callback to a past scene is the guy working on the yard running into them at the restaurant. Which is more like real life, a collection of memories and incidents and nothing necessarily tying it all up neatly. To me personally, it challenged my notions of how my own thoughts are organized. What was the thinking behind this choice, and do you think there’s other ways to challenge narrative structure?

Now, I don’t recall the response Mr. Hawke gave me exactly, but this is what I got from it.

“Plot is an adornment on which you display emotion. You need plot to keep people focused and not get bored. You need plot to get to the point where you get across to your audience the emotion you wished to convey. No one remembers whether Lawrence of Arabia lived or died at the end of the movie, but everyone remembers him atop the train, being cocky.

“It’s possible to use time as a structure – Boyhood does have a structure – it shows the life of a boy from first grade to twelfth grade (How did I never see that!). It’s possible to make the structure something less conventional, hence having the emotion and plot sneak up on the audience.

“Guys like Kerouac are responsible for a lot of bad art, because they make that look so easy. People read On the Road and think “I could do that, I can write a story about my friends”. People watch scenes all about burping, and think “I could do that”. But they can’t, because it isn’t about just your friends or burping. ”

Previously in the conversation, he also talked about how Linklater approached writing his scripts. While his life may be boring when compared to most movies, with dead bodies, chase scenes and choppers, he still thinks his life is interesting, and the most interesting parts involve the moments he connects with someone else.

Given all this, it seems like there’s a third approach to scripts. So far, I’ve seen screenplays and stories be plot-driven, or character-driven. These stories though, seem ’emotion-driven’. Hence, Linklater is okay with his actors coming up with their own three-dimensional characters, and operates on a wafer-thin plotline. Because the magic is in the connections, and it matters little how we get there.

That also puts in context this interview of Norah Jones where she talks about her experience filming My Blueberry Nights with Wong Kar-Wai. He was okay with changing the script to suit her. If she had difficulty with anything, he didn’t mind switching it over to something that came to her more naturally. The interviewer said “What if you had an accent issue, or you were bad at dialogue?”. She said “Then he would have made my character mute, or something”. At that point, I wondered what was up with that, and how did a renowned director want Norah Jones so much for a role, when she wasn’t even an actress, that he was willing to do whatever it took to have her do the role?

Now it makes sense. My Blueberry Nights wasn’t about the characters, or a plot. It, like all other movies of his, was about capturing a certain connection, or a certain emotion. So it didn’t matter what Norah could do or couldn’t. There was enough flexibility to be able to arrive at a certain moment or a certain connection.

Now that I have the vocabulary to talk about, and think about movies in this way, I expect to be able to frame better stories, focus on the right things, and get less carried away by the vagaries of plot and character. A lot of what confuses me about writing fiction is how to decide what choice is fun, what parts don’t matter, and what parts do. If I fix on the emotion, then location, people, and other things end up mattering less, and there’s less to be confused about.


I returned to my seat grinning ear to ear, and looking back and smiling at Mr. Hawke. I couldn’t hear the next couple of questions, because my heart was beating so loud. I barely managed an intelligible response to the couple sitting next to me, who said “Good question”.

Heady stuff.

Maybe I’ll put that in a movie 😀


About wanderlust

just your average books-and-music person who wants to change the world.
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