Linklater, Hawke and Delpy discuss their 'Before' trilogy and why 'life is magic enough'
For Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke, the goal of three unique films — 1995's "Before Sunrise," 2004's "Before Sunset" and 2013's "Before Midnight" — that have followed the lives of Celine and Jesse, a pair of love-struck individuals, has been to make viewers feel like they know them. These are people trying to be understood, and the idea is "to get in on their communication," as Linklater puts it. The films have aimed to depict Celine and Jesse as fully as they can, and the result has been one of the most singular on-going cinematic experiences in the modern canon.
To that, Delpy adds that a desire for complexity has been at the forefront. "They're not melodramatic," she says. "It's kind of real and a very small window in the life of these people. It's very important not to make them flat characters."
Celine is unusual in that the opportunities to convey such a complex female character are so few and far between, particularly in the Hollywood sphere.
"The problem, probably, is very insidious," Hawke says, "which is that young women are told at a very young age that what's most interesting about them is being pretty. It's a kind of soul-gutting thing to do to our young women. Whereas men are never taught that. The man who overvalues his looks is really sneered at. If you just flip through the channels and how often you see a woman disrobing in some way or dead or in some state of violence being put upon her, it's shocking. It's rare to see a woman not in one of those positions. So that's what's so remarkable about Celine. And also she's a flawed person. It's not a glamorized portrait of a woman. It's a dimensionalized portrait."
It was obvious to everyone involved from the first film that Celine was heading in a direction that is not a simplified version of a human being. Linklater adds by way of caveat that it's rare that you get this sort of latitude to express a full like, but nevertheless, says Hawke, "I think one of the things Rick and Julie and I are most proud of is Celine, just what a fascinating figure she is."
The logic behind the first film certainly didn't necessarily make specific room for sequels. It was just an independent venture with three creatively motivated artists painting a portrait with passion. When the trio came back together for Linklater's animated feature "Waking Life" in 2001, which featured a brief interlude with Celine and Jesse, that got the gears turning on revisiting the story.
"That's when we looked at each other and said, 'Maybe we should do it,'" Linklater says. "That was the big leap, doing the second film. Committing to that in the vacuum of no one wanting it, except three people and maybe Martin Shafer at Castle Rock. It's the moment we realized Jesse and Celine are still alive that we have something to express through them at a new phase or where they are in life. And it's not that conscious. It just bubbles up amongst us and it's when we realize we're all on the same page, what the movie would be."
What's interesting is that each film has mirrored the film industry and where it has been with each release, Linklater says. "The first film, while only a $2.7 million film, was distributed by a major studio, Columbia Pictures, through Castle Rock," he says. "They had a deal there. Small release, but studios would release a small film, it's worth it to have in their library. The second film was Warner Independent, gone, but an indie release. And then this film, we had no industry financing whatsoever. It was like private equity money, then acquired by Sony Pictures Classics, thankfully. We've had similar results with the three films, but who financed it? Three very different things."
The collaboration since "Before Sunset" has been one that credits Delpy and Hawke as writers on the projects as well. The three were nominated for a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar for that film and have just received a WGA notice for "Midnight."
Leading into the third film, Hawke sat down and watched the first two back-to-back. What it did for him, he says, is unlock the tone. "Those movies have a unique tone and they can withstand a certain kind of humor and not another kind, and a certain kind of cynicism but not another kind," he explains. "There's a unique world to those first two movies that the third one needed to fit into and then push beyond. So you can't break the tone or the spell dies. And what's funny is it changes who I thought Jesse was when I played him in 1995. It's different than how I look at him now. What I thought was confidence I now read as arrogance and insecure. Lots of things change."