'Before Sunset' asks the hard questions
Richard Linklater is watching the clock. He perches on a sofa in the Paramount's mezzanine, the muffled sounds of his 1995 film Before Sunrise echoing from the screen behind a pair of French doors. Interviewers come and go in 15-minute increments. Next up are reporters from People, who will lob questions about the Austin premiere of Sunrise's follow-up, Before Sunset.
Actor Ethan Hawke arrived minutes ago amidst a flurry of cell phone calls. "You're supposed to be here!" a publicist shrieked, and then he was shambling around the corner onto Congress Avenue. Hawke's co-star, Julie Delpy, missed her flight that morning but is expected any minute.
Before Sunset picks up with the characters Jesse and Celine, strangers on a train who spent a star-crossed night in Vienna, nine years later, when they meet again in a Paris bookshop. They are older and possibly wiser, and Before Sunset is a nimbler, more naturalistic film. Its story unfolds in real time while Jesse awaits the plane that will take him home.
Hawke and Delpy co-wrote the script with Linklater, alternating long-distance communication with "superintense sessions" of writing and workshopping dialogue in person. Two weeks of rehearsal and a 15-day shooting schedule followed. In discussing the completed film, the three evince the sort of camaraderie engendered by such deep collaboration, finishing one another's sentences, as well as the slap-happiness of junketing.
Austin Chronicle: Here's the question everyone is probably asking you: Why return to this story now?
Richard Linklater: I think I realized that these characters were still alive in us. I mean, you could almost do this for any movie, but something about the nature of them, or the collaboration we had those years ago, and the idea that they were still kind of churning inside of us made us kind of compelled to do it. It was a scary thought I'll be honest I guess because of the negative connotations of a sequel, like "sequel equals bad," like we'd run out of original ideas.
Ethan Hawke: Yeah.
RL: I mean, we knew it would be totally different. No one wanted us to do it. The industry was never clamoring for it. For whatever reason, we just couldn't let go of it.
EH: If you're still thinking it's a good idea after nine years, you kind of have to do it.
RL: Artistically that's when you should even if you're afraid of something but it's still on your mind you should do it. Sometimes you'll have an idea and a year later you think, "That's a terrible idea." But we had that seven-, eight-year gestation. That's a good sign.
EH: In art ...
RL: And in life.
AC: You told Filmmaker about trying to do a version [of Before Sunset] in 2000 with a bigger budget, multiple locations ...
RL: Over the years, we had tried it, but we could never get financing. It was really not real. That was because Julie and Ethan had worked together for a few days on a scene in Waking Life that suggests that [the characters] are back together. Basically we couldn't get money and we had a much bigger idea at the time. So we pared it down.
AC: As before, the dialogue seems very improvisational, but is actually carefully planned and scripted. Can you tell me about the process of collaborating long-distance?
EH: It started with years of sitting around at dinner, going, "Wouldn't it be fun if ...? We should find them in America married with eight kids!" We couldn't figure out how we should find them.
RL: There was a problem with structure.
EH: The first one ends with this idea of them meeting six months later. Well, four or five years had gone by, and we didn't look like it was six months later, and I didn't want to act like I was 24, you know? I'm turning 30. Once the idea of real time [arose], it gave a shape to our dialogue, and then we started having workshops.
The interview breaks up briefly with the arrival of a dazed-looking Delpy from the airport. She squeezes between Linklater and Hawke on the sofa, holding an as-yet-unsmoked cigarette in one hand. Hawke, who has been fiddling with a ballpoint pen, begins to draw on the leg of her jeans.
AC: My impression from watching the first film again last night and the second this morning is that Celine talks more [in the second film] ...
Julie Delpy: [to Hawke] Don't write on my pants, OK? I hate that. Sorry, what did you say?
RL: That you're more vocal in the second film.
JD: Yeah, I guess I am a little bit more. I talk; I'm more chatty.
RL: Celine has more to say. Jesse's hiding more.
JD: I noticed that when we were going over the script. [to Linklater] No, but you gave me more dialogue, I mean, basically, right?
RL: It was always that we were going for not that we ever think of this as a 50/50 dialogue.
JD: I spoke better English. I could speak more.
AC: I was wondering if it had something to do with the scene in the first film with the palmist, when she says that Jesse "is learning." What has Jesse learned? Or not learned?
EH: I resented the comment back then. It was way condescending.
RL: [teasing] It was way condescending.
EH: You know, what does anybody learn? Who knows, you know? The world spins around, and hopefully you come up with a few new ideas.
RL: Who learns anything? We live in the United States of Amnesia.
JD: That's a good one.
RL: Gore Vidal.
JD: I like that.
RL: Whatever. That's not what this interview's about. Sorry.
AC: No, that's perfectly appropriate.
EH: I don't think there's any cute answer to that, about what he's learned. I think if anything he does come off a little cocksure in the first film and he comes off a little humbled in the second. I mean, I certainly feel that way. When I see the clips from the first movie, it amazes me how grownup I felt I was when we made that movie ...
JD: And how not grownup you are ...
EH: And when I look at myself I feel like a little kid. And there's this strange thing about how the older you get the younger you feel. I definitely feel like I don't know as much now as I felt then.
RL: I was never so sure about the workings of the world and my place in it as when I was 17, 18
EH: Yeah. "Why go to college? What don't I know? A little bit of calculus, maybe?"
RL: It's amazing what those years teach you.
JD: I think I was darker then.
EH: You? You were darker.
JD: I lightened up.
RL: I think we all lightened up in a certain way. I think it's the rapport among us.
JD: I was suffering all the time.
RL: Now you're only suffering most of the time.
EH: Now you suffer every other day.
JD: Only when I fly.
[Delpy finally notices the sound of the screening in the theatre.]
JD: What movie is that?
RL: Before Sunrise.
JD: Oh, it is? [laughs]
RL: It's some old piece of shit movie from a long time ago. I don't know why they're showing it.
AC: Ethan, your character has a forceful moment [in Before Sunset] in which he describes his marriage as "running a small nursery with someone I used to date." I have an interest in this question because I saw the first film when I was 23, and I saw the second now that I'm 32 ...
EH: You're the same age as the characters.
AC: Right. And so I feel kind of personally connected to the characters and where they are, and now your character's a parent, you're a parent, [to Linklater] you're a parent...
RL: Julie will never be a parent. She's got kittens. Ninety-three, actually.
EH: I knew that she should have babies when I saw that she had four breasts.
EH: Like a cat.
AC: What do you think it takes, philosophically, to sustain love in the face of adult responsibility?
RL: Don't ask me.
EH: Good question. Man, that's a real question.
RL: That's another movie.
AC: Well, I think it's the question the second film poses.
RL: It poses it but doesn't answer it.
JD: I don't understand the question.
EH: You could do several movies on that.
RL: Well, you can tell that is on the table, but there's certainly no resolve to it.
EH: That's the question I think you walk away with: "How do you make love stay?"
RL: Or is it worth pursuing at that level? Clearly they have a deep connection. One thing we establish is that that connection was there then, it's here now. So what do you do with that? So much of the movie is about desire. Do you follow it? Do you squelch it? How do you deal with that in the real world? It's easy when you're young to follow that, but if you get older and you follow whimsical desires, then you're just acting like a kid. But I always admire people who follow their passion, even if they look foolish. It's admirable.
AC: You told Filmmaker the characters would return and the next film would be "digging into the belly of the domestic beast."
RL: What? When did I say that?
EH: I think you should keep saying that. "The next film will dig into the belly of the domestic beast."
RL: If there is a next film. Who knows? I think that's a natural thought, and I probably said that in an offhand way. Technically we don't have an idea for a third film.
RL: We don't have any more of an idea than anybody else.
EH: If we were to make a third film it would happen when we felt a great idea arose. Like the question you asked, "How do you make love stay in the face of adult responsibility?" Well, that's a really deep question. If you could figure out an attack on that, that would really address that question with these characters, then it would be worth making a third movie. Or you could address a different question. But that's what it'll take.
Before Sunset opens in Austin on Friday, July 9. For a review and showtimes, see Film listings.