On Thursday, Collider broke the news that Richard Linklater would begin production on what appears to be his most ambitious project yet: an adaptation of the Stephen Sondheim musical Merrily We Roll Along, which takes place over the course of twenty years. The hook? Linklater, along with stars Ben Platt and Beanie Feldstein, will shoot the project over the course of the next two decades, so the characters will age in real time.
Linklater has already proven his ability to use time as a storytelling element in film—Boyhood, shot over 12 years, gave audiences the chance to watch two children grow into adults (and adult actors Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke grow into older adults). Boyhood is a stunning meditation on time and aging and the capabilities of cinema to capture things that can’t really be caught in any other medium—but it is light on plot, instead washing over audiences as a series of scenes that build a character’s life. Merrily We Roll Along, however, is a story that’s worked in several media before—as a stage play, as a musical, and now as a feature film.
Of course, the idea that we’ll actually be able to watch the film is an optimistic one. A lot can happen between now and 2039! Linklater, who celebrated his 59th birthday last month, will be older than Bernie Sanders is right now. Climate change could come for us all—or, in a world where the only films that seem to make money anymore are Marvel movies and remakes of old Disney properties (the six highest-grossing movies of 2019 all fit this description!), it’s risky to assume that there’ll even be an audience for a Sondheim musical at the multiplex/streaming service/brain-implant-by-which-we-consume-media come 2039.
We admire Linklater’s optimism, but we have questions. Here is what we are wondering about the experience of going to see Merrily We Roll Along in 2039:
1. Will movie theaters still exist?
There is a pretty real existential question facing Hollywood. While it’s true that there are more companies than ever producing entertainment (even if it seems like half of them are owned by Disney), box office receipts are down in 2019, and even in good years, rising ticket prices mask smaller audience numbers overall. Experts surveyed by film website IndieWire this summer were more optimistic than the numbers alone are, though—pointing out that the number of people going to baseball and football games are down, too, but that those business models are going to be viable for a long time, and that movie theaters are a lifeline in smaller markets where people are looking for somewhere to go at night. We’ll take the expert’s word for it on the former point, and also refer to our own experiences as Texans who don’t have to battle Los Angeles traffic to get to a movie theater to say that, yeah, movie theaters will probably still exist in some form. People like going out to do things with other people, and that is a fundamental facet of being a social animal. It’s probably not going to change—so assuming there is a 2039, we’ll plan on having the ability to leave the house to watch Linklater’s movie.
2. What will the outside world be like?
We’ll probably also need those movie theaters for their air conditioning. We’re likely to be just under 2 degrees warmer in 2039 than we were in 2010, which—in addition to having a potentially cataclysmic impact on society—is really hot. Let’s put it this way—if Merrily We Roll Along has any scenes set among the glaciers of Antarctica, the way that Where’d You Go, Bernadette does, it’d probably be a good idea to shoot them sooner than to save them for the end of the production cycle.
3. What kind of weird sci-fi stuff is going to come true?
Probably not: the dragon warfare of the Matthew McConaughey classic Reign of Fire; a society governed by the Three Laws of Robotics, as envisioned for 2035 in Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot; somebody breaking Joe DiMaggio’s hitting streak, as predicted by Star Trek: Voyager; sigh, driverless cars.
Maybe: Television, as predicted by Star Trek: The Next Generation, fades (even if it just transforms into something else); crewed space travel to Mars; um, murderous AI a la The Terminator? Maybe The Purge?
It’s hard to say, but trying to answer this question makes a little more sense if you consider the world of 1999, when cell phones were a luxury item, the Internet was still for nerds, and Donald Trump was an ’80s guy who made cameo appearances on shows like Suddenly Susan and The Drew Carey Show. Some stuff happens faster than we expected—say, the ubiquity of smartphones—while others are a lot slower (we still haven’t cured cancer). Might you get to the movie theater you’re going to to see Merrily We Roll Along via jetpack? Heck, maybe—but it’s awfully tough to know the extent to which the world will look different a couple decades from now.
4. What does all of this actually look like?
That speaks to the ambition of Linklater’s project, though. Boyhood, which was shot in secret, starred two of the director’s closest collaborators, his own daughter, and a child actor no one had ever heard of. Merrily We Roll Along features two rising Hollywood stars whose profiles are elevated simply by virtue of being involved in this project, and offers the promise of something genuinely remarkable if they pull it off. Back when Boyhood was on the awards circuit, as it went from “Best Picture shoe-in” to “actually, maybe it’s overrated,” other filmmakers who talked about the movie anonymously boasted that if they had had 12 years to make a movie with the same cast, they’d have done something truly spectacular. It’s easy to imagine that Linklater felt the sting of that critique, and was looking for a project that couldn’t be dismissed for its naturalistic storytelling.
One fascinating thing about Merrily We Roll Along is that the story is told in reverse—which means that the performances by Platt and Feldstein being shot right now are performances we’ll see at the end of the film, while the movie’s opening scenes won’t be shot for decades yet, when the leads are in their mid-40’s. The stage production focuses on events that occur in nine of the twenty years that unfold during the course of the show, which means that there are likely to be years off between shooting—so despite the long-term commitment, even if this film shoots for the same 100-ish days that it took to make Cats, that’s only a week or two every few years. If Platt, Feldstein, and Linklater all like each other, it’ll be like going to summer camp.
Which means that while this is a pretty bonkers announcement, the actual filmmaking process is more about long-term vision than the intensity that the words “20-year project” conjures.
Still, let’s not underestimate that vision. In the years since Boyhood, we’ve seen a handful of other projects that use time as a building block of story—it’s not a million miles away from what J.J. Abrams and Rian Johnson have done with Star Wars, drawing on the power of watching Carrie Fischer, Harrison Ford, and Mark Hamill play the same characters they made famous in their youth; or even from the intergenerational Karate Kid saga that’s played out over the past couple years on Cobra Kai.
There is a cinematic thrill in understanding that these are the same faces, with the lines and wrinkles on them earned by life, that is spectacular to see unfold. Linklater helped engineer that, and it’s exciting to see him go back to that space. We may not know much about what the year 2039 will look like, but we have a pretty good guess about one movie that’ll be competitive in your Best Picture Oscar pool.