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Third Time Around

It began with a glance. When Céline hurried down the aisle of the Vienna-bound train, did she notice Jesse first — or he her?

It’s been so long since the two met — 18 years! — and so much has happened since then (divorce, commitment, children). It’s easy to forget that Jesse and Céline were once proverbial strangers on a train.

But the couple still sees each other, sees through each other as only romantic partners can, and their romance has spanned millennial change. What was once a Gen X, pre-Internet love affair has aged into a full-blown, middle-age relationship — with kids.

Does their reality bite?

In Before Midnight, the third in Richard Linklater’s beloved Before (Sunrise, Sunset, Midnight) series, our protagonists have, to use Portlandia parlance, achieved their dream of the ’90s: They are finally together. Their children are beautiful. They’ve spent their summer in a blissed-out Greek paradise.

But the summer is ending.

And the question for Jesse and Céline, who in the final scene of Before Sunset were left ambiguously, achingly dangling at a life-altering precipice, is no longer: “What if?”

It’s: “What now?”

The trio at the core of the Before films — and the brain trust of Linklater, Ethan Hawke, and Julie Delpy really are a trio of collaborators, of storytellers — have grown up together both behind and in front of the camera. Audiences, too, have aged with the films and bring with them a huge level of expectation.

Before Sunrise arrived in 1995 as a lovely surprise from the Austin auteur who had made Slacker and Dazed and Confused. Then, nine years later, came the world’s most unexpected sequel. Now, after another almost-decade, comes a deceptively complicated story about aging and desire, gender politics and learning how to fight well with the person you love.

Before Midnight is a film of long takes; sun-kissed, private, Proustian moments; and friends and family (a first in the trilogy). And those aforementioned fights? They feel as funny and messy and caustic as, well, your fights.

Jesse and Céline are having their midlife crisis; it’s relatable and raw and offers the promise of, in perhaps another nine years (and at the break of dawn), one more exquisite depiction of mercy and love.

While at the SXSW Film Festival, Filmmaker sat down for a long chat with Linklater about his new movie. Before Midnight comes out on May 24 through Sony Pictures Classics.

How did your screening go last night? You were at the Paramount, right? Great. I’ve seen it three times now: Sundance, Berlin and here [SXSW]. And that’s probably the last time I’ll see it for a while.

Is it wildly different for you to see it in Austin? Are there nuances of humor that work here but didn’t translate in Berlin? Not really. I was surprised. You know, some films, they get different laughs, different responses. [This one, the responses] seem pretty similar. I had one joke in there about [Céline and Jesse] deciding whether she’ll go to Texas to be at his grandmother’s funeral. And she makes the joke, “Oh, if I don’t go, it’ll be easier for you to fuck your cousins. Isn’t that common where you come from?” That gets a big laugh everywhere, but last night it got kind of an, “Awww, come on.”

How do you decide what city to set these films in? It’s been, so far, Vienna, Paris and southwestern Greece. What’s the name of the region? Peloponnese.

When you first conceived of the idea of these films, it was inspired by someone you met in Philadelphia, right? Yeah.

Director Richard Linklater with Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke on the set of Before Midnight. (Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics)
Director Richard Linklater with Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke on the set of Before Midnight.

So how is the decision made to select a city, a location? How do you think it affects the story on creative but also production and financing levels? It’s a huge [decision] on each of these films, which technically could take place anywhere. The very first film 18 years ago, it could have been in the U.S. I started out just walking around San Antonio. I thought, “What if they walked around here one night?” I set it in Vienna for a number of reasons, and [the city] became a major character in the movie, as did Paris in the second one. The second one, [the location] made a little more sense. [Céline] would live there, and their hook-up was more of a premeditative encounter on her part. For this one, we had to think through their lives. We had been conceptually working on the film for a few years, but it wasn’t until the end of May that we settled on the city. We had to be [on location] in July because we were shooting in August. So it was that late in the game that the physical place came into focus. I was going to go to Greece, Spain and Italy to scout. I went to Greece first. I had some connections there, some friends. I found a couple of key locations, and I just said, “This is it.” I just got a good vibe and went on instinct. Something about the ancientness of Greece, too, kind of weighed into it. And they are slightly volatile right now, which I sort of liked.

Did you think you were making an intrinsically political choice by setting it in Greece right now? Not really. If I would’ve set it in the one neighborhood in Athens where they’re having riots, that would’ve been a political choice. I mean, you get outside of that neighborhood and you would never know for the most part [about the economic crisis]. People are a little edgy, but they’re also nice and accommodating. Greece is really special. I really loved it there. They’ve got their own little Greek New Wave going on. [Director and producer] Athina Rachel Tsangari is a good friend of mine, and I used a lot of her crew. One of her producer friends over there ended up producing the movie with me. So it just all fell into place.

Was the financing mostly European or all European? The Greece contingent was like, one third, and two thirds U.S.

Before Sunset, was it the same sort of European-U.S. collaboration? No. Early on, we got in with the Castle Rock guys. They funded the first film. We had a $2.7 million budget. They did the second one, too, the same budget. This one was practically the same budget. The years go by and our budgets stay very similar, unfortunately. We were already shooting before the financing was finalized. Ethan was starting a play, and we had this much time to do it, so we just jumped in. I am forever grateful to Martin Shafer at Castle Rock [for financing the film]. I mean, I was coming off Dazed and Confused, and before it even came out, I had the script to Before Sunrise. I was casting the day Dazed opened. That was a trend I wanted to keep going, to sort of always be onto your next project. And after doing two ensembles, Slacker and Dazed, it felt like, “Okay, I’m going to do something really intimate and have maybe a stronger female voice.” So I was looking for an actress, someone strong like Julie.

Were you specifically looking for a European? No, at first I thought maybe the guy would be European and she would be American. It didn’t really matter. I think what I was going for was an equality. You know, most films are pitched either from a male or a female point of view. By sheer number, it’s usually male because there are more men making films, for whatever reason. But I was really going for a 50/50, no more male than female. That’s what I’ve been striving for in all of the movies. Even when they argue and stuff, I would feel like I failed if people came out and said, “She’s right and he’s wrong,” or vice versa, you know?

For the first film, you sought out a female co-writer to balance out the point of view. Well, that was before I met Julie and worked with her. On that first draft, I worked with a friend, Kim Krizan, for, like, 11 days. I had the outline and what I was going for. She was just someone I liked to talk to, and we had a script. So it started as a more traditional movie. But it was always the working methodology of that film 18 years ago to get with the two actors and rewrite the script. In a fair world, Julie and Ethan would have also been credited on that screenplay as writers, and I think it kind of bugs Julie, especially, to this day. But the fact is that [that script] kicked us off. It originates the character and a lot of the scenes [in the film] are as written, but rewritten. And [the process of working with Ethan and Julie] told me that that was the way to go in the future. Once they came aboard, it became something else. If we would have done it word for word [from the original script], it would have been so embarrassingly bad.

It was a 15-day shooting schedule for the last one. How long was it for this one? The same.

And the first one, how many days was that? 25. These three films together are a 55-day schedule. I think that’s the schedule I had on a few of my studio films. We started off with a 20-day schedule, but I looked at our locations and, just to challenge ourselves, said, “We don’t need a whole week there. I think we can do it in three days. We don’t need three days here, we can do it in two.” There’s something about that urgency. But, I mean, it’s really tough on Julie and Ethan — the long takes and the amount that they have to memorize day to day.

Before Sunrise and Before Sunset were both shot on film. What format was Before Midnight shot on? The ALEXA? Yeah, we jumped to it. I shot my last two films on the ALEXA.

How was the decision made?  Out in Athens they had a camera house that had some ALEXAs. And also, I know, it was kind of an economic [decision], too, because I wouldn’t have to set up a big editing room in Greece to process dailies. I could just send them back to the U.S. and have an editing room at my office. It was such a short shoot that I could just be logging and watching dailies that night. The convenience of it helped.

The 13-minute take in the car at the beginning of the film made me think of some Kiarostami films, which always have fantastic long-take car scenes with dialogue. Did you go into this film planning to have such a long take? No, not really. I just thought it was important, right off the bat, for people who maybe had seen the previous films to be able to go, like, “Wow, I’m hanging out with them again.” Just like being around an old friend. You can look at them and hang out with them without any manipulation. [The long two-shot] just triggers something in the viewer’s mind, like, “Hey, this is real.” It takes incredible actors, a really tight script and a lot of rehearsal to pull that off. I don’t think anyone will ever understand how much work they put into it to make it seem like it’s completely effortless.

What’s the writing and rehearsal process like for the three of you? Did you have a space that you rehearsed in together for several weeks? We did what we could apart until finally we had an outline. We were sending each other multipaged drafts of scenes and we were into it. But I felt we just had to get over to Greece. So we sat in a room [there] for seven weeks and workshopped the script and rehearsed. And [that process] never really ends. Even on the [shoot] day, we might drop a line or [find] room for something new. I would say every time we rehearse it, we’re rewriting it a little bit. Our rehearsals are sort of the continuing writing of [the script] based on how it sounds and how it’s landing. What people would think of as typical direction, it does happen, too. On the day, even the best actors still need a thing like, in the fight scene, “Hey, you’re not mad yet. You’re still trying to get laid.” We all three know that at a conceptual level, it just helps to be reminded. That’s what a good coach does. You go, “Hey, you’re dropping your elbow a little. Just a little observation.” I’m not saying I know anything, but that’s what a good director does, helps them with the technical things.

You had a new cinematographer this time, the great d.p. who shot Alps. Christos Voudouris, a good guy.

How did that change the dynamic of the film? Not much. I thought it was important to get a Greek [cinematographer] since my crew was all Greek and everything. You know, a d.p. sets a tone; he’s running several major departments: grip, electric, camera. Having a Greek guy I thought would help integrate us more into the film culture there. It was the right way to go. I would say Christos’s general lighting and tone is usually different than this movie, but it was easy to have a shorthand with him. I would go, “Let’s look at the previous movies. This is going to be warmer. We’re on summer holiday. I know everyone that comes to Greece tries to make it look like Mamma Mia!, and we’re not going for that. But they are on holiday, and I do want it to be warmer.” It took him a little while to realize just exactly what I was going for, I think, but, you know, a good d.p. should be able to, just like a director, get anything. I’m sort of leery of a d.p. with a distinct style. It’s great when it’s the distinct style you need, but if you need something [else] it’s like a miscast. It’s like an actor who has just done one thing. You’re going to get that. You want versatility. Everyone’s different, but I kind of like chameleon-y type people who can achieve different stuff. I mean, that’s how I work. I always feel like the film is speaking to you with its own needs and you gotta meet those needs, whether it’s whatever genre you’re in or wherever you find yourself. Isn’t that the director’s job? How do I want the audience to perceive this story? How am I telling this story? I mean, you just rally around that. What’s the best way to tell this story? How should it look? What’s the texture of it? Where are the colors? What’s the tone? My last film, Bernie, that was a big challenge. A black comedy is all about a consistent tone and pitch. Everyone’s gotta rally around that. Everyone. So this one had its own pitch and tone, and you just gotta get everybody on board with that.

Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy in Before Midnight. (Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics)
Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy in Before Midnight.

I wanted to ask you about the long lunch scene, with the three generations of couples. It’s just an amazing scene. The bar was set so high because, I mean, let’s face it, as filmmakers dinner scenes are boring and hard to shoot. Yeah. They’re just hard on every level, and often not very fun. They can stop a movie in their tracks. But I wanted you, the audience member to a) feel like you’re sitting at the table. And b), I wanted you to wish you were at that dinner. I wanted it to be lively and irreverent and somewhat stimulating and sexy, and [to hit] all the notes that could be hit with a lot of friends — people who have come to know each other, who don’t know each other that well and who are maybe comfortable enough to be themselves with no real agenda. And to not go too far off story with Jesse and Céline. That was the challenge. So the bar was pretty high. It was tough. We rehearsed the hell out of that and really worked it, worked it, worked it.

For that scene, was it one camera? Or did you have multiple cameras? I had two cameras. I did this thing with two cameras handheld for mobility, but sitting on apple boxes. And then, in post, we kind of did a stabilization for whatever little [movement there was]. We just took all that out in post. I didn’t want it to be a handheld feel — I just wanted to shoot it handheld.

The writing process of that scene, was that jointly you and Ethan and Julie? Yeah, it was the same trio. We just had a ton of material, [for] that scene in particular. I must’ve had 100 pages for that scene to narrow it down.

100 pages? I’m not kidding. I would turn in 30 pages of stuff just on my mind, and it would end up a couple of thoughts here and there. But that’s our process. It’s like, nothing gets by any of us if we don’t all like it and agree that it fits in a) the movie, and b), specifically to part of the character. If any of us have any doubts about anything, it just isn’t in the movie. I can’t impose anything on them. We learned this a long time ago. If Ethan really has something he wants to express and Julie and I are kinda going, “Eh, I don’t know,” it’s gone. We don’t even argue. It’s a really rigorous process. We make each other work really hard, I guess.

I remember telling Ethan I’d had a dream the night before about this movie I saw. And he just transposed my dream into a novel [and it became this dialogue] at the end of [Before Midnight] about this book he read. I go, “Really? That was just some stupid dream I had.” And he goes, “No, I really like that.” And Julie’s like, “Yeah, it’s a nice segue.” And I go, “Okay.” So stuff happens like that. Stuff bubbles up from all of us, and not necessarily always in a writerly way. A lot of it’s conversation, and then it gets refined in the dialogue phase. We all spend a lot of time writing on our own time. And when we’re together, we’re reading each others’ [writing], and we’re just kind of talking. We’ll spend a whole day just yapping away, and it’s all an open game. It’s all fodder.

So when the conversations, the emails, the dialogue starts coming from Ethan and Julie, it’s not gender specific? Julie isn’t advocating and articulating her character? It’s sort of a blur between the male and female?  I think people will be surprised how not gender specific it is. Ethan and I are both kind of feminists, in a way. A lot of what people would think is this hardcore feminist stuff could come from either of us. Julie has kind of a male side to her that’s really funny and wicked, raunchy. I think we’ve always kind of blurred those lines between us. And it’s kind of a great feeling, too, because there will be [in the movie] some wonderful bit one of them will say that seems “so them,” and I’m one of the only people who knows where it originated. But at the end of the day, you want to feel that it’s them. So I think that it would be a huge misconception to think everything coming out of their mouths is them. It’s just not the case.

Going back a bit, you said something about the ancientness of Greece. Was aging something that you were more acutely aware of in this one more than the other two? I don’t know if it was any more in this one. I think in Sunset, actually, they seemed to talk a little more about aging, I guess, because they were reencountering each other. This one, it definitely permeates it a little bit, but it’s less specific. You can tell they’re sort of being worn down by the thought. But you know, that’s what I love about [the Greece location]. I love the kind of fleeting feeling when you’re in a place that is ancient. I loved that feeling of just being just a little speck on a big spectrum of time.

Can you talk about your interests in depicting aging in films generally? There’s this trilogy, which will become however many films, and then Boyhood. What are your particular interests in seeing people age on film? Wow. I guess I didn’t really think about it that much until the last decade. But if you think about it, time, and how you can manipulate it, is really one of the more interesting and unique properties of cinema. How subjects themselves can age is pretty interesting, too. On Boyhood — and it probably will end up not that title — I was sort of stuck. I wanted to tell a story about childhood, but there are limitations to that, i.e., the age of the actor. You can’t turn an eight year old into a 14 year old. So I decided to just film a little bit over time and everyone would age in it. It seemed like an interesting narrative experiment that’s unique to cinema. There are a lot of possibilities that are rarely dealt with in [fiction filmmaking]. You see it in documentaries.

The 7-Up films, you mean? Yeah, but any [documentary]. Let’s say you’re doing a film on a rock band. You cut back to film of them in the ’60s and ’70s, and then you’re in the now. I mean, that’s kind of powerful right there, just boom, boom, boom — cutting back and forth. You don’t really get that in fiction too much.

The Antoine Doinel films, I guess. The Apu Trilogy. Those are the ones that jump to my mind. One of my favorites is actually the Mick Travis Trilogy, the Malcolm McDowell/Lindsay Anderson films: if…., O Lucky Man! and Britannia Hospital. That’s about 14 years from ’68. But, Lindsay Anderson was so radical. The characters played by Malcolm McDowell have the same name but are completely different characters. There’s no connection. It’s pretty funny. That was Lindsay’s Brechtian thing. I think the closest to the Before movies is probably Truffaut’s Doinel series. It’s pretty sad. If [Truffaut] had lived, I’m sure there would’ve been a few more of those.

Have Ethan and Julie aged in the way that you imagined these characters would have aged? Or, is there sort of some slight disconnect where you’re constantly reimagining the course of Céline and Jesse’s relationship based on what’s going on in Ethan and Julie’s lives and how they’re aging? Well, I think the canvas is sort of limited to whatever sculpting time is actually doing on Ethan and Julie. Whatever’s going on there is what we have to work with, so we take our cues from that. But I don’t really imagine anything. I mean, whatever could happen to either of them would be fodder for whatever the next episode would be. That’s how I thought about the last nine years — whatever happens would be our reality. Who knows about the future? I don’t know if there’ll ever be another one. Right now, we’ll leave it here. But the last two times, it took about five years, and then we started. We realized Jesse and Céline were maybe at a new place in life and had something to say and we just started from there. Who knows in five years what we’’ll be thinking? These films kinda lull us in to demarcate our own lives. I’m a decade older than both of them, almost, so I’m looking back a little bit and catching them in the moment.

When you look back nine years or 18 years, in terms of the craft of your filmmaking, do you see a younger filmmaker? Not really. I wish I could say so, but no. I look at the first film and I go, “Oh, okay. I had a plan.” I was formed by then pretty thoroughly, I feel. I don’t know. We’re sort of stuck with ourselves, for better or worse. I don’t know if I’ve evolved at all.

So you think if you hadn’t made Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, and you right now decided to make a film about two 23 year olds meeting on a train,  that it would sort of turn out the same way? If I was shooting it today for the first time?

Yeah, different actors, 23 years old, right out of college. I think it’d be very different because I myself would be that much more removed from it. I mean the whole thing was based on an experience I had when I was 29. When I was 29, I was still more or less 23. There wasn’t much of a difference. I hadn’t taken on any trappings of adult responsibilities, other than just trying to make movies. I guess I was kind of ageless at that point, and that’s what the new film talks about. You see them negotiating the space of their lives — how some relationships become just the managing of space, joint possessions and children. Or, whatever two people agree to that’s important in their lives together becomes, perhaps, the subject of their lives. And that can be a real bog down. You know, it’s like marriage is another possession. Our marriage is a possession. Our kids are a possession. This fucking house is a possession. Where is your life? Where is your passion? That’s the battle I saw them act — the eternal struggle, I guess.

This film seems more acutely aware of gender, and how men and women age differently and the kind of resentments that can develop. Well, they’ve been through more. When you have kids and you build up a longer-term relationship, it kind of necessitates enough compromise that resentments build if you let them. If there’s any level of manipulation or resentment, it’s there. It’s really all about compromise and sacrifice. Everyone does it and everyone feels a little aggrieved by it, so that’s just where they find themselves. But kids will do that to you. I think Céline’s character has felt the brunt of that more acutely, and not only probably because moms often do. Jesse’s career as a writer has taken him away a lot, and if you’re going to be with someone who’s creative, who tours, that’s just another level of stuff. Also, this time we’re picking up with them after they’ve gotten so much of what they would’ve wanted. If 10 years ago they could’ve signed up for where they are now, they probably both would’ve went, “Yeah, great.” They’ve got careers, each other, these kids. They’re in this kind of paradisiacal location, and yet, they’re still people. They’re still humans. They still have to interact. There’s plenty to be annoyed with.

You have two eight year olds? And a 19 year old.

You had the two eight year olds right after the last one came out? Yeah.

Does that inform the movie? Well, 18 years ago, when we first started working on this, [my daughter] was not even one and Julie and Ethan seemed light years away from having children. Cut to now and, between us, we’ve got eight kids. Everyone’s been through a lot. There’s just a lot of life that has been lived. Things have been complex in all of our lives. There was a lot of fodder to work with. Whatever complaints the characters have [in the films], often, aren’t even ours. They’re what we hear from various partners.

How do you think parenthood affects you as an artist? I think it’s great because it sort of focuses you. It makes you work a little harder, in a way. I don’t think it’s a bad thing. But again, timing in your life is very important for that. I mean, there is a time in every artist’s life, and I think it’s usually your youth, when you really do have to dedicate your life 100 percent to this thing, whether it’s music, painting, sculpture or filmmaking, especially. It’s kind of like joining the priesthood. You really have to go all in. I’m glad those years when I was doing that I didn’t have kids. I was in my 30s before [having them]. I got that decade of just totally following my own muse without a lot of interference. It does make you kind of a bad boyfriend. I couldn’t date anyone who didn’t mind me seeing three films a day and editing all night. They just had to work around that. But at some point if you want to be a responsible parent, that has to come first to the highest degree you can pull it off. [Parenting and filmmaking] becomes a little more of a balancing act. But [parenthood] could screw you up if you were just starting. I don’t know how you’d put in the time necessary to master your craft and be a good parent.

Once you and Ethan and Julie spent a year or however long it was sort of sending the emails back and forth talking about it in broad strokes, did you know that the film would have to move toward this epic third-act fight? Was that something early on you figured out? Yeah, that was pretty much always there from a pretty early conceptual level. We talked about maybe even opening with them in a fight or in a therapy session. You work through all the clichés. “Let’s open with them in couple’s counseling.” You know, you work through things you’ve seen before. So we kinda distilled it down and found a place for it. It was a little risky to have it at the end of the movie, but it’s just the way it unfolded. But we had a really high bar there, too. Most fights [in films] are just fights. They’re one thing: a fight. It was great to have the luxury of time because most fights [in real life] aren’t that. Most fights are really people trying not to fight. And I said that in this fight. They certainly aren’t going in that room to fight. There’s built up stuff so it just happens, and they go there. But you can also sense it’s not the first time they have fought. Couples kind of figure out a way to fight. They know each other’s buttons.

Someone at the press conference in Berlin referred to the film’s happy ending, and you seemed slightly taken aback. You said something to the extent of, “Oh, happy? You see it as happy? That’s nice.” Well, to me, it’s a little bittersweet or ambiguous. A friend of mine was with someone else and they came out and had two pretty different opinions about it. The friend said, “I give them six months.” And then, [my other friend] was like, “No, I think they’re going to work through their problems because they still fundamentally love each other.” So I was like, “Okay, those are the two sides, I guess.” In any relationship, you keep doing it until you don’t like it. It’s great until it’s not, until you quit trying, and then you give up. It’s not worth it. But I always thought [their relationship] was romantic just because they’re still talking.

They’re trying. They’re communicating, and they’re still making each other laugh. You get a sense they still think each other are sexy. So I think that’s about as good as you can do in your 40s, although I do know older couples who still have it going on. It’s pretty amazing. It’s something to aspire to.

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