Before Midnight: Interview with Richard Linklater

In BEFORE MIDNIGHT, “They’re still talking, still making each other laugh” says director Richard Linklater about Jesse and Celine, the couple chronicled in Linklater’s earlier films BEFORE SUNRISE (1995) and BEFORE SUNSET (2004).

“This time around, we thought the thing we really had to offer was brutal honesty about long term commitments—just how tough it is. All those little minefields. We had to dig into more of a domestic front, so different from the brief encounter of their twenties or the rediscovery in their thirties. It’s not the same kind of romance, yet we still think there’s something special to this couple.”

“We” is the trio who created Jesse and Celine in a remarkable, ongoing cinematic collaboration: writer/director Linklater and writers/actors Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke. Linklater wrote the original, semi-autobiographical script (with Kim Krizan); Delpy and Hawke, who portray Celine and Jesse, helped Linklater deconstruct and revise the script, leavening the first film with their own dialogue contributions and character insights. Since then, the three have regrouped—every seven or eight years or so—to co-write and create the second and third films in the series.

“We’ve just kind of riffed together,” says Hawke, “almost a little bit like a band, and Julie and I play certain instruments in this band and Rick is the lead singer and he calls us up every so often and asks us to play together.”

Did they anticipate all along that their original indie effort would someday follow on these characters as they evolved through life and love? “Of course not—you couldn’t plan for such things,” says Linklater. “You never know what’s going to go on creatively between people on a movie. It just so happens we had a really special experience back in ’94. We were just three people who felt like they still had something to express via these characters.”

“I don’t think anybody could have imagined it,” agrees Hawke. “But I knew when the first film was over that I wanted to work with them again. It somehow accidentally came together three times in a row. Every time I look back on it I don’t really know how it happened. I don’t think we’d all return to each other if we didn’t have a tremendous amount of love for the whole project.”

“We all go our separate ways” concurs Delpy. “but it’s there in the back of our minds for months and years—and we think and think and think, and next thing you know we’re writing together again.”

Long term relationship

The alchemy that intermittently, unexpectedly brings Linklater, Hawke and Delpy together kicks off a writing process described as “mysterious” (by Hawke), “ego-less” (by Delpy), and “mesmeric” (by producer Sara Woodhatch). After BEFORE
SUNSET, says Linklater, “Everyone wanted to know—when’s the third one? What happens?”

Six years of percolation later, the trio was again ready to bring Celine and Jesse back to life.

Hawke: “The way it works is: we run into each other for some reason and we end up talking and then we debate for a few years about how it would be that these characters would come in contact with each other again. And then an outline appears…”

Delpy: “…and we start taking notes, and Ethan will send us a scene, and then I will send them a monologue about losing the person you love, dying or whatever, and it may or may not ever end up in the film…”

Linklater: “… but it didn’t totally come together until we got to Greece. We spent seven weeks, very, very intensive weeks writing, workshopping, really demanding a lot of each other.”

Hawke: “People love the idea that Julie writes Celine and I write Jessie and Rick edits it or something. And that would make sense, but the truth is there’s no part of this script that Julie or I or Rick hasn’t had our hands in. Rick has a rule that if anybody doesn’t like something, it’s out and that gives us a feeling of relaxation and confidence.”
Delpy: “I often write for Ethan and Ethan for me, and you know, we all work for each other and with each other. We try to let go of any ego, because otherwise the work would suffer from it.”

Writers in paradise

Once the writing process on BEFORE MIDNIGHT was truly afoot, with an outline and Greek setting decided on, producers Christos V. Konstantakopoulos (Take Shelter, Attenberg, Somebody Up There Likes Me) and Woodhatch assembled the writers (along with fortunate spouses and children) to hash out the final script. “We wanted to create the best creative environment for them to write in—a bubble, just a fabulously idyllic setting with no outside diversions. We set them up at Costa Navarino, the gorgeous resort in Messinia where the hotel scenes in the film were shot. To watch the creative dynamism is mesmerizing—it’s like they have invisible elastic bands between them. They audition funny parts and sad parts for each other to see if they work, and it’s so compelling.”

Timeless Greece

The camera may be trained squarely on Celine and Jesse, but when it breaks away to take in the surroundings, Greece itself—beautiful, troubled, ancient, modern—becomes a character in the film. “There was just something about Greece,” says Linklater. “We find Jesse and Celine in a sort of paradise: they’re together, he’s
writing books, she’s an environmentalist, they have children—I mean so much of what they probably wanted to have happen in their lives has come to pass, and yet here they are on this idyllic summer vacation, and all is not perfect, it never is.”

“There’s no more moving place to be in Europe than Greece right now,” says Hawke, “Because it’s both intensely ancient and it’s very present as a modern force. It’s in the news every day. But romantic love is timeless—love is always new and it’s always been done before. Everybody’s doing it. Kids are falling in love—you know, there’s a new set of before sunrises every day. It’s a well-worn path and it’s infinitely interesting to us, to humans. Eros is a very mysterious god, because he’s both the youngest and the oldest. Greece conjures up a longing for some meaning in life, which I think is valuable as a metaphor to the film.”

Says Delpy, “It made memorizing the lines and shooting those scenes a little less painful because we were in the most amazing place I’ve ever been—this ancient place where western civilization basically started, you know?”

<strong>Filming on home turf

For producers Linklater, Konstantakopoulos and Woodhatch, and the mostly Greek crew, Greece was more a magnificent production opportunity than a metaphor. Producer Sara Woodhatch, a Londoner who produces with Castle Rock Entertainment (and longtime veteran of romantic-comedy productions) joined forces with Konstantakopoulos and his Faliro House Productions to pull together a lean but top-notch shoot.
“Rick, Christos and I did a very fast location scout and found the writer’s retreat, which actually was the home of Patrick Leigh Fermor, a great travel writer and intrepid, swashbuckling guy. There’s a lot of character in that house.” The people in the dinner party scene resonate with Greek cinema too: “Walter Lassally, who plays Patrick, the host, was the Oscar-winning director of photography on Zorba the Greek and countless other films. This is his acting debut age 85.

Xenia Kalogeropoulou, who plays Patrick’s companion, is the Greek equivalent of Sophia Loren; she’s an icon who was persuaded by Athina Tsangari (Co-producer) to come out of retirement for us, because she felt so close to her monologue about her husband. All the actors in the dinner party are the cream of Greek film and theater.”

The crew, including director of photography Christos Voudouris, was nearly all Greek; exceptions were the sound department, led by Colin Nicolson, who was familiar with the technical challenges of the earlier films’ walking-and-talking lengthy takes, and editor Sandra Adair, who cut all three films in the series and other Linklater projects. “We wanted lighting and camera people who really knew that incredible Greek light,” recalls Woodhatch. “There was a kind of gameness, a really high energy and talent in the Greek crew. We shot it in fifteen days. Eight and a half pages of dialogue the first day. We just had an amazing team. Even with the economic worries there’s a renaissance in Greek film going on—it’s like a bolt of lightning hit their ground and the result is incredibly fertile creativity.”
Romantic love part 3

Whether meandering through the streets of Messinia, Vienna, or Paris, the films are never travelogues—the focus always returns to Celine and Jesse and their trajectories.

“Life beats you up,” says Hawke. “It’s very telling that this movie starts with the unseen casualty of the last movie—Henry, Jesse’s son, who has now grown up separated from his father. Sure we’re all rooting for Jesse to stay in Paris when he finds Celine again, but now, after all these years, we see that there are consequences. It’s a nice accidental accomplishment that time does a lot of the work for us. We’re older, we’re deepening, our characters are deepening. There’s a certain kind of confidence that Jesse has in the first movie that only young men have. That’s lost its charm for Celine.”

“Okay,” says Delpy, “When you do follow the person you love, what happens? It’s not going to be that idealized, rosy-glass romantic love. There’s no perfect relationship—when I see people that are too perfect together, there’s something really weird. When I see people arguing and having issues and stuff, I’m like, Yeah this is a real couple, I believe it.”

Says Hawke, “The earlier films are so much about romantic projection, the way we fantasize who somebody might be for us. It seemed that if we were going to make a third film we simply had to say what happens behind the curtain. What happens when the clothes come off? And that seems to be a very necessary movie for us to make at this point in our lives in our forties. It’s where the rubber meets the road as a human being. You’re in the midpoint of your life and it’s like there’s a certain feeling of, “Is that all there is?” And there’s a certain feeling of gratitude that can slip in and a certain disappointment, and they’re kind of at war with each other. We’re interested in that gray area.”

“We love both characters, and we didn’t want victims,” says Delpy. “Victims aren’t much fun to watch.”

Hard work of looking like you’re not working hard

“People ask if some of the dialogue is improvised,” says Linklater, “But every word is scripted. It’s a testament to Ethan and Julie at the top of their game if the audience thinks they’re making it up as they go along. An enormous amount of work goes into the script and the conception and we work really, really hard to come up with dialogue that feels natural and authentic, that flows the way real conversation flows. There’s this magical place we get to where I’m directing and they’re acting and I have a movie to make and they have a ton of dialogue to memorize, and they finally know it so well that they can kind of forget it isn’t real.”

Long—very long—uncut takes, framing Celine and Jesse in conversation as they walk or drive through village and countryside, are signature stylistic elements that immerse the viewer in the moment-to-moment of their relationship.

“It’s actually torture,” says Delpy of the marathon takes. “Sometimes we cry. It’s so much easier to do a big dramatic scene like the fight in the hotel than to look relaxed and unself-conscious with the camera going and going.”

“They’re a blast,” says Hawke of the challenging takes, “But it’s so much work. That opening car shot is 14 minutes long and we tell the whole story. People wonder how we do that kind of thing in all the movies and, sad to say, it’s just we rehearse and rehearse until blood’s coming out of our ears. When you do it, if you do it right, it seems effortless and that’s the goal. Rick is an athlete—practice, practice, practice. We write the thing and write the thing and one day Rick says “alright, the writers have been fired and I want to take the actors out in the car.” With a very long take the magic isn’t in editing—the magic is on the day. It’s a lot of pressure. I love it.”

Present past future
While all three of the Jesse and Celine films are so vividly in the moment—the second film actually unfolds in real time, and the first and third condense brief hours-long time spans—the concept of time swirls through the entire decades-long enterprise. Past, future, aging, memory—there’s even a time-machine riff that figures in at the first meeting in 1995 and the latest confrontation in the present. It’s one of many subtle grace notes that wend through the trajectory.

“The notion of time is our major subject,” says Linklater. “Jumping forward to a new stage in life, backward in memory; Jesse’s a novelist, he does these little digressive, retrospective flights of imagination through his books, and Celine is more firmly in the present.”

Linklater cites François Truffaut’s Antoine Doinel series of films starring Jean-Pierre Léaud (The Four Hundred Blows, Love at Twenty, Stolen Kisses, Bed and Board etc.) as an inspiration to follow characters through life’s progress.

Delpy loves evolving with her character Celine through time: “The film is so much about time passing, but that’s not a depressing thing—they’re as alive in their forties as they were in their twenties. Sometimes I read a screenplay in a Hollywood film and it’s like, the woman past forty, she’s angry, bitter, and I think why are you describing those women? I don’t know any women like that!”

BEFORE MIDNIGHT ventures deeper into character drama and transcends the expectations of any genre. “A lot of times when you see married life,” notes Hawke, “It’s either some kind of cornball, whitewash thing where everybody’s okay, or it’s heavy drama, alcohol and stress, they secretly hate each other and it’s either too white or too black. What’s fun about this as a romance is that neither gender wins or loses—most romances seem to have either a female agenda, where the guys are all dopes, or a masculine idea of what romantic love is supposed to look like, with Eva
Mendes crawling across the floor in a bikini. What’s so wonderful about these movies is they’re kind of genderless. Julie’s voice and her artistry are so powerful in the film. I guess what I’m trying to say is it’s fun to make a romantic movie that I’m not ashamed to ask my male friends to go see.”

Before Next Time?
None of the filmmaking principals are coy about whether the story of Celine and Jesse will wind on, because they seem sincerely not to know the answer. For one thing: “It’s grueling,” says Hawke. “They don’t come easy and they always are worth it. It’s difficult to write a movie as incredibly personal to three people, and the style of acting that Rick is going after is a little merciless because if it’s ever noticeable that you’re acting you’ve ruined the whole project.”

Delpy too feels some dread: “It’s not that we don’t want to see each other or something, it’s really because of how hard it is. It’s like, you forget after nine years the pain, so it takes that long to forget the pain to go back through it.”

“The audience feels like they know these people, and we start to feel we could let people down and invariably we will,” says Hawke. “Each time we go further on down this path with these characters, people feel like they get to know them even better. So it’s possible to betray that. It’s so difficult for Rick, Julie and I to continue the story without the betraying our audience’s interest and at the same time remaining absolutely authentic and truthful to who they are.”

As the linchpin who may or may not call the collaboration back to life once more, Richard Linklater sees wide-open possibilities: “We’ll just drift away from Jesse and Celine for now, let them keep talking, and then we’ll see. We’ll go out on an uncertain note… some people leave the movie and say, this is it, they’ve got irreconcilable differences here, and I give them less than a year. And then other people might think, you know they’re going to make it, they’re going to stick it out through thick and thin. Who knows?”

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