Like most artifacts that defined a period and a generation, Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise (1995) is a film that viewers of a certain age now regard with deep fondness and a faint blush of recognition. A backpacker’s wet dream, a slacker mating ritual in miniature, and a swooning love story so believably tentative and open-ended it allowed secretly romantic cynics to have it both ways, this literal date movie sent two strangers on a train out into the Viennese summer for an all-night rap session. The miraculous new Before Sunset (opens July 2; see review), which right away establishes that the young lovers Celine (Julie Delpy) and Jesse (Ethan Hawke) failed to rendezvous six months later as promised, effortlessly evokes the chemistry and relaxed verbosity of the first film, but with the melancholic intensification that only the passage of time can confer.
“One of the reasons it took so long to make a second film was the fear of ruining the first,” says Hawke, who co-wrote Before Sunset with Delpy and Linklater. “A year or two after the first film, we realized these characters were still with us,” says Linklater. “I wanted to shoot a 30-minute ‘six months later’ version, and complete the rest later.” But the postscript idea became less tenable as the actors aged. All three discussed sequel scenarios over the years, and actually wrote a script for what Linklater calls “a more conventional romantic comedy, which took place in multiple continents.” Because of difficulty raising funds, though, they had to reconceptualize the project, and finally settled on a minimal two-hander that unfolds in real time—the most lifelike of special effects, one that gives this 80-minute movie its formal rigor, dramatic urgency, and emotional power.
“When you’re young, it’s all about hope and possibility,” says Hawke. “Now you’re in your thirties; stuff has happened to you. It’s not about the future but what you’ve done well, what you’ve failed at, and how quickly it feels like life is going by. Real time was one way to get at that feeling.” In Before Sunset, Jesse has written a novel inspired by his tryst with Celine nine years ago. Celine shows up at his Paris reading, an hour or so before he has to catch a flight home to New York, and the film captures their reunion in a single conversation—a digressive, effusive chat sustained over a late-afternoon stroll through Left Bank streets and along the Seine, easing from nervous niceties to strategic flirtations, building to mutual admissions of regret in a stunning scene aboard a tourist boat passing under bridges, in and out of shadow, and an eruption of candid distress in the back of an airport limo.
It’s no coincidence that early in Before Sunset, Jesse talks about wanting to write a book in the form of a pop song, with a mutable narrative that alternately stretches and collapses time—structural ambitions that match Linklater’s. The director has always gravitated to compact durations: More than half his features take place in spans of under 24 hours (the existential head trip Waking Life breaks free entirely from temporal limits). “Working in real time was the ultimate challenge for me,” says Linklater. “Our back was to the wall, structurally speaking. You couldn’t just drop a scene. There’s no way to lessen or elongate a scene, no way to cut geographically. It couldn’t have been more intricately planned out. But it was fun to get that obsessed about all those things you never see in movies—like paying the bill, leaving the tip.”
With virtually no wiggle room, it was a production that hinged on the tiniest of details, from the amount of dialogue covered on a particular stretch of cobblestone to the position of the sun. “Not only did we have just 15 days to shoot, but on any given day, we only had four hours,” says Linklater. Technically, it was an exercise in self-effacement. “It was important that the Steadicam moves not draw attention to themselves or to the performances,” he adds. “The point was to not draw attention to anything.” For the actors, the most daunting task was sustaining the illusion of spontaneity. “The worst would be fake-natural,” Delpy says. “To remember the lines and make it feel like it’s the first time you’re saying them, that’s the hardest work.” Hawke adds: “Rick’s line to me was ‘No drama.’ What will make it dramatic is that there’s no drama. It’s the opposite of the direction you get for 98 percent of all other jobs, which is to amp everything up.”
According to Linklater, the writing process “never really broke down along gender lines.” Delpy says her favorite material “is actually what I wrote for Ethan,” and Hawke acknowledges that the collaborative back-and-forth ensured that the characters are in a sense collective alter egos: “Jesse is one-third me, one-third Rick, and one-third Julie’s idealized male. Celine is some version of Julie, some version of who she wants to be, and Rick’s and my fantasy of some French babe,” he says. “The characters have parallel lives to us. With no plot and no real narrative, what it has to rest on is some kind of truth, right?”
Indeed, there are clear autobiographical elements: Hawke, like Jesse, has published fiction, and Delpy, like Celine, is a sometime singer-songwriter (the actress contributed to Before Sunset‘s soundtrack and has released an album in Europe). In Hawke’s case, when Jesse finally reveals details of his unhappy relationship, it’s hard not to think of the actor’s recent breakup with Uma Thurman. “Even when Ethan was trying to talk about his problems, I told him not to, it’s not my business,” says Delpy. “Some people will say, oh, it’s autobiographical. But he wrote this way before he was going to get separated. It just happened to be relevant, but it wasn’t originally. It became it, which was good for the film. That’s what Rick and I were saying when he was depressed. We were like, ‘Good for the movie!’ ”
With its rapt focus on moment-to-moment thought and experience, Before Sunset is as much a study in brain chemistry as Waking Life. “I wanted the film to unfold the way a conversation unfolds, the way subjects flow and come back around,” says Linklater, whose ear for vernacular riffing is unmatched in American movies. Stream-of-consciousness shapes not just the dialogue but the form of his films, many of which radiate an amiably associative vibe that might be termed, for better or worse, stoned. “It’s so funny because I’m not druggy at all,” he says, “but I appreciate the metaphor. Drugs are maybe the easiest, but there are many other ways to other levels of consciousness. You can take a hallucinogen, you can meditate, you can have a frontal-lobe procedure.”
Having scored his biggest commercial hit with School of Rock, perhaps the most personal (and political) studio movie of the past year, Linklater is now working on a rotoscoped adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly. School of Rock helped him overcome his fear of directing material he didn’t write. “I was lucky that I didn’t have to hit false notes,” he says. “Even in the context of a comedy that would appeal to kids, I didn’t have to totally compromise my idea of reality. I was able to say, ‘You know, I can’t do an ending where they win and donate money to the school.’ ”
Linklater and his actors say they’re tempted to drop in periodically on Celine and Jesse, as Truffaut did with Antoine Doinel, though, as Hawke puts it, “If we make a third one and it’s bad, it will seem like we just got lucky on the first two.” In any case, says Linklater, “it won’t be anytime soon.” The nine-year gap between Before Sunrise and Before Sunset—a lacuna that invites viewer participation, obliging you to consider the then-and-now differences in the characters’ and your own attitudes to love and life and death—is precisely what gives this movie its enormous poignancy. “It’s evidence of time passing,” says Linklater. “You have to confront what the hell you’ve been doing.”