With “Before Midnight” being readily clasped to the bosoms of audiences and critics alike at the Berlin International Film Festival, and having missed the talent when on their promotional rounds at Sundance last month (where the film was similarly well-received, our review is here), we jumped at the chance to sit down with the film’s co-creators last week. We ran our Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy interview earlier, but up next we have director Richard Linklater — a filmmaker we’re quite the fan of and of whom we ran a retrospective last year — talking about bottling the lightning of the beloved “Before Sunrise” not once, not twice, but now three times over.
How do you account for the films’ success?
Richard Linklater: [laughs] Are we successful? We always say they are the lowest-grossing films to ever spawn a sequel — that’s what we said about the second one. And certainly the lowest grossing films to ever be a franchise, or whatever we are — a trilogy.
Was it difficult to get this one funded?
It wasn’t that hard to get the money. I think because the previous two films existed, they kind of knew what they were getting. Most films you’re asking them to take some huge leap of faith into the unknown that words on a page don’t adequately describe and they’re very skeptical and fear-based. This one, it’s not that much money and they know the characters, that all helped…
[But] this one felt in a way the hardest. We were more relaxed with each other and more trusting, but it felt like we had to work twice as hard because the bar was higher. It was more difficult to make this subject matter compelling.
One of the notable differences in ‘Midnight’ as opposed to ‘Sunrise’ or ‘Sunset’ is the absence of a train or a plane to catch.
Yes, the finite-ness of those give them that little edge, but here it’s like, once you’ve dedicated your life to someone, inertia sets in… So yeah, I think we all have to ask that about our lives, what’s compelling us forward? I just think [here] the ups and downs of their lives are heightened, you know, they’re on holiday and it’s trying to be a special evening, they’ve been given this thing away from the kids.
So can we expect another installment in 9 years’ time?
You know, it just happened that way. We realized when we were shooting last summer it was also the same time period as between one and two — it wasn’t a plan but now if there were ever to be another one, it would have to be in nine years. Also, who does nine years? It’s always ten or five.
…I told [Berlinale Director] Dieter Kosslick last night, “I’ll see you in 2022.” And he’s like “Oh, I won’t be alive then.”
Could you imagine having done this film around the time of “Before Sunrise”?
That was 18 years ago… We couldn’t have imagined, just like right now we can’t imagine what the next one would be; it’s impossible. We have to live a little more, 5 or 6 years more maybe. I’m older than Ethan and Julie but you kind of have to get there to understand.
So the process is organic, but how does it come together?
Once we sort of decide to do it, at that 6-year mark where we kind of go, “Ah yeah, we’re thinking seriously now, not just joking,” then we spend a year and a half just kind of throwing out these ideas, and maybe for a few months we’ll entertain an idea and keep talking about it, and then it just goes away — it’s not practical or something else intervenes.
For a while we were thinking that maybe it was just their workaday lives, we pick up with them on a Thursday, she’s at her job and he’s doing his thing and they meet and they eat, you know, kind of what life is for a lot of people in domestic [situations]. And then we were like, that’s kind of depressing.
We get there eventually, but we have the luxury of a couple years to think, and that gestation time is really important to us.
And so why Greece this time out?
[It wasn’t necessarily Greece] until May of last year — we thought about setting this one for a while in the U.S., maybe a town like San Francisco, but we had to think about where would she be able to get a job in her field that is fulfilling to her and where would he be as a writer/teacher.
… [The setting is] important — it’s a third character. Greece is an important character in the movie — in one way it could sort of be anywhere — but it ends up being a major player in the movie. Greece was happenstance. I had a couple countries I was going to go to, but I went to Greece and I found the house.
How much does the location then influence the writing process?
We work [the location] in — we’re enmeshed. We had outlined the script in the States, we had drafts of scenes, but we really all showed up in Greece to work on it, so naturally our time there was finding its way in, and the people we were meeting, in dialogues. We weren’t trying to say anything about Greece but we were trying to infuse it with the experience.
And how seamlessly does the writing transition into the shoot?
We are co-writers and co-creators, and then there’s that moment I always talk about when we’re getting close to production and they have to act and perform and I have to make the movie, then we kind of become actor/director. But it’s not a big thing. Our rehearsals just kind of blend into production, but there is that moment where they realize just how much work they have to do and I’m the guy to remind them that they’re not quite there yet.
I’m like “Let’s run that scene” and then it’s “Hey, you don’t really know that scene yet! Even though we all wrote it together, you’re not quite there. I’m going to go have a production meeting and you guys keep running the lines…”
But you must have known, even around “Before Sunrise,” that you were looking for collaborators, rather than just actors?
Yeah, 19 years ago I was casting that first film, and I was looking for the two most creative people I could find. I’d done a few films at that point, but they had been big ensemble films and there’s a kind of actor who just wants to do their lines the best they can, but I like the actor who’s like, “What about this?” They bring more to their character.
If you’re doing a big ensemble and a part doesn’t take off, you just have less of it in the final film, you cut it out of the movie. But this, it was like the whole movie relied on them. I had a script but I was demanding that Ethan and Julie work with me to rewrite it and bring themselves to it. That script ended up being just an outline with ideas sprinkled throughout that we built on.
Ethan at that point had written a novel, had made movies, made music videos, they both were in full-blown acting careers too, but yeah, they both aspired to make movies and scripts. And it’s evolved into this [thing where] they’ve had these writer/director careers themselves and we have this epic collaboration going on now that’s really fun.
You employ a few very long takes in this film. Are they difficult to shoot?
Yes, the car scene — it’s very difficult for the actors I think. It’s a tribute to Ethan and Julie, what good actors they are. It’s the kind of acting you don’t give awards to because people accept it as real, kind of like the apes at the beginning of ‘2001‘ — they didn’t win best costume because they thought they were real. Julie and Ethan, people think it’s real, they think we just turn on a camera and we capture these dialogues. You know, “acting” is Daniel Day Lewis playing Lincoln — that’s acting. And I’m not saying it isn’t, it’s good acting, but that’s seen at a different level, when it really isn’t. This is actually harder, I think.
And the kids in the back of the car were great too…
I’m glad you picked up on that. It’s a 13-plus minute scene and they have lines that they have to say, and that’s one take. We do do that cutaway to the ruins, and yet I cut back to the same take, it’s not like I switched takes there. It’s one almost-14-minute shot. It’s a little perverse but I felt that was a good way to get reacquainted to the [characters], without cut-cut-cut-cut. You can look at either of them — it’s classic Andre Bazin, mise en scene cinema theory. There’s something to that, I like that you could just hang out with them.
There is a now timelessness to Jesse and Celine’s story, despite the fact that originally it was hailed as some sort of Generation X thing.
I think we were unencumbered by that, maybe the European setting or whatever [helped]. But what Gen X people talked about… there’s not really one pop culture reference in that movie, that movie could take place anytime. It’s two young people who are 23 in 1993 or 1994 and that’s the generation you’re in, but that’s just chronology and birth.
Did the nature of reuniting the first time inform your “Untitled 12-Year Project” [which is being shot year by year and plots the changing relationship of a boy with his parents]?
Actually it was the other way around. I started that one in ‘02 and we reunited in ‘03, the next year. So I guess I was thinking about time a lot, while committing to that idea. That one will be done in a couple of years, but it is a weird notion the way time and cinema [work]. It’s such a unique property of cinema — Tarkovsky talks about that, in his great book “Sculpting in Time.”
…What’s really interesting is what you go through as you get older and acquire more life experience, and now I think [Jesse and Celine] represent just people who have gone through being alive for the last 20 years in the world. And we’ve all done that – we’re all 18 years older.
“Before Midnight” arrives in theaters on May 24th.