Q&A: Before Midnight Director Richard Linklater on Reuniting With Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, the Anatomy of a Rant, and Doing It All Again at 84Sony Pictures Classics
Even by the standards of “indie-voice-of-a-generation” cinema, director Richard Linklater has achieved a unique adjectival status. When you sit down to watch a Linklater film, you can know exactly what that means without having any idea what you’re in for. It could be a rotoscoped take on Philip K. Dick (A Scanner Darkly) or a coming-of-age tale where no one comes of age (Dazed and Confused). Jack Black might be a friendly, neighborhood murderer (Bernie) or a rock-burn-out substitute teacher (School of Rock). Hell, he’s even forever, successfully linked Zac Efron to Orson Welles. Linklater films can really only be categorized under miscellaneous. But like porn and First Amendment violations, you know ’em when you see ’em. There’s long, meandering takes and expletive-laced philosophy; fuzzy politics, brain science, and ontological agony; and sex that seesaws between heartrending romanticism and pure horniness. And plenty of pot.
But towering over this varied filmography is Before Sunrise. Even if you don’t know Linklater, chances are you know its protagonists, Ethan Hawke’s Jesse and Julie Delpy’s Celine, the modern-day Gen X Romeo and Juliet. With Before Sunrise, Linklater created the ultimate romantic fantasy for the hopelessly horny and hyper-articulate. (I can’t be the only awkward freshman who lifted quotes to make headway with girls.) Then, in a stroke of truly ballsy filmmaking nine years later, Linklater cracked open that film’s perfect, ambiguous ending and pulled out a surprising, poignant sequel, Before Sunset. It earned him, Hawke, and Delpy an Oscar nomination for screenwriting. Now, almost 20 years since the original, Jesse and Celine are back with Before Midnight. In another filmmaker’s hands, even a gifted one, the conceit should have gone stale by now. But somehow, saddling the ethereally romantic duo with children, messy divorces, and agonizing job offers, Linklater has reached new heights. Personally, Before Midnight might be one of my favorite cinematic rants about love. (Don’t just take my word that it’s a possible masterpiece: here!) So, when you’re offered the chance to talk to a filmmaker who’s contributed so much to our modern notion of love, you take it.
I can’t tell you how many time I watched your films in high school trying to get laid.
Does it work?
But I think Before Midnight is great for relationships. It’s like a primer in how to charm your way through fights.
Yeah, you can pull some lines out and use them!
My favorite is Ethan Hawke calling Julie Delpy “Mayor of Crazy Town.”
Yeah. [Laughs.] Mayor of Crazy Town …
I probably won’t use that one. Anyway, each of these three films employs a new, picturesque European location … why Greece this time?
It just sort of worked out that way. It wasn’t some master plan. There was a Greek producer I was talking to — Athina Tsangari, a filmmaker in Athens who’s a friend of mine. She showed me around, introduced me to a lot of people. I was going to look in another country but I found some great key locations, like that writer’s house.
It was beautiful, basically every writer’s fantasy Mediterranean retreat. Whose house was it?
There’s a famous British writer who lived in Greece, Patrick Leigh Fermor. The Powell/Pressburger film Ill Met by Moonlight is based on him. Dirk Bogarde plays Fermor. He was this really tough, great guy, an outdoorsman who had this incredible life and died at like 94. Less than a year later, we were in there filming. His cats were still there and his housekeeper. We even named the writer Patrick. In fact, that place is going to be used as a writer’s retreat. I said to myself, “I’ll never do better than this.”
The working idea was we’re finding Jesse and Celine in some kind of paradise. They’ve gotten so much of what they always wanted; if you went back and looked at a contract, it would say, “You got everything you wanted, I don’t know why you’re not happy.” It was really to dig into the complexity post-getting-what-you-wanted, to see what that looked like.
What does “happily ever after” really mean.
Yeah, what does that mean. I’ve always been kind of mystified by the notions of happiness and love and what time does to that. What does it even mean as a goal?
Speaking of time, you made the original almost 20 years ago. If you could, what would you say to Younger You as he made Before Sunrise?
I don’t know. People ask if I’ve evolved much since then, but I don’t know. I don’t know if I have that much to tell that guy.
Maybe, “You’ll be doing this again. Be nice to the actors.”
[Laughs.] Yeah, buckle up. Maybe, “Not much is going to change; you’re on the right path.”
When you made the first one, you obviously never saw yourself doing it again.
Never. It was a scary-ass notion. It wasn’t actually until Waking Life, that’s when we looked at each other and said we should. It was a scary thought, going back in. But after that experience, it’s just something with our chemistry. It was worth pursuing.
Now do you feel like you have to do it every nine years?
Got to do it now; the pressure mounts! Nah, we don’t feel that at all. And we didn’t feel it any other time. We want to work together but there’s got to be a good idea. The one thing we’ve learned is there won’t be any ideas for six or seven years, if the past tells us anything. You got to live the life to realize where Jesse and Celine might be. It can’t be that now. Though, it would be funny if we just did one 18 months later.
You never know.
You never know.
With digital cameras you can do super long walking and talking takes.
Yeah, I’m waiting for the technology to catch up where I can do one 98-minute take. That’ll be the next one! But who knows. If we stay on the nine years thing, they’d be exactly 50. If it ended here, that would be fine. Who knows the future?
I’m sure everyone asks what’s the secret alchemy behind these scripts. I read that you, Ethan, and Julie just lock yourselves in a room and have at it.
Yeah, we really have fun, we just bullshit, we digress, we talk about anything. We’re really honest. Obviously, we have an outline, we have notes we’re looking to hit, but the search for those notes is really interesting. We have permission to talk about anything and joke. We keep bringing it back to Jesse and Celine, but we incorporate just everything, any subject matter. It’s a really democratic process. I like the way we suddenly push and challenge each other. Someone might say, “That’s interesting but I don’t know if it’s this movie. I don’t know if it’s Jesse, if it’s Celine.” It’s up to you to go, “I think it is, but it’s up to me to work on it some more, take it deeper or funnier.” It has to get vetted by all of us.
Everything in the script gets unanimous approval from you three?
Yeah. We probably leave 95 percent of our material; it never makes it. If it’s not taking off with the other two, it’s just … [Makes vague “kerpow” sound.]
It might surprise some, but I hear nothing in these films is really improv. Those long, digressive dialogues are meticulously rehearsed.
That would be someone who doesn’t really know how movies are made, because that would be impossible. When people ask about improv, I ask, what’s the great improv movie? Tell me the movies that are improv that hit story points and are dramatic. I think you can improv moments. Perhaps. I’ve never done that; I can’t afford to do that. Films are, for me, very meticulously planned and constructed. I can’t even imagine. You could maybe if you were cutting a lot, but you could never have one continual take — a reasonable perfectly structured conversation — that hit every story point and set up the movie. It’s just not possible. It would be like sitting down on your piano and composing [a symphony] on your first try.
Even as early as Slacker, creating that meandering feel with your camera and all those characters must have required a lot of planning.
Yeah, that was pretty obvious off the bat. People were all like, “Look at this meandering tone,” like I was just going to pull someone off the street. This is all highly constructed. It set the tone for kind of everything I’ve ever done. Within that intricate construction, it’s loose — not the shooting, the subject matter. I get with an actor and find new ideas and try to make it work. I’m just always trying to make it better, or funnier or deeper.
How do you construct those patented “Richard Linklater” rants? What, do you take the latest New Yorker, Google for a few hours, and then just talk out loud to yourself for 20 minutes?
[Laughs.] I don’t think it’s that simple. I don’t know what it is. Which rant? I’ll give you the anatomy of a rant.
One of my favorites is from Waking Life where you talk about the notion that after we die, our brains keep functioning for a few minutes, and maybe that’s what “eternity” is. Where did that come from?
A lot of places. We reference it in the movie: Timothy Leary talking about dying, knowing a little bit of brain science. I’d been studying a lot for that particular movie. What your body secretes in the brain, supposedly at death, you use the rest of it, so that’s your eternity notion. I just liked that idea that there’s brain activity as your body’s shutting down. What is that, a light show?
What really freaked me out was the idea you would then be the maker of your own heaven or hell; reliving your entire life over and over as you “die.”
Yeah. That concept of judgment as hell. And, are you dead already? That was the William Burroughs: How do you know you’re not dead already?
I believe Beetlejuice posed the same question with equal intellectual rigor.
What would a Richard Linklater $200 million blockbuster look like?
[Laughs.] I don’t know. Something probably pretty out there, science fiction. That might be something I could pull off.
Have you seen anything lately that you’d add to your all-time best list?
I don’t know if I’ve added a new best film to my movie list in 15 years. You know how you get stuck in your early thinking. It’s like first love. You’re like, “No, that’s the best.” It hit me at a point in my life. You go, “that’s pretty good,” but it takes 10 years to even think it. It’s funny to watch those top-10 lists shift around. I think in one poll, Vertigo finally passed Citizen Kane for like the first time … I have lesser-known films that were never in people’s canon. The one I champion a lot because I’m a big Vincente Minnelli fan is his melodrama Some Came Running with Frank Sinatra, Shirley MacLaine, and Dean Martin. Minnelli’s melodramas are great. They’re kind of designed like musicals … My own personal favorites, they never fade. Films are a good thing to attach your love to, cause they’re stable. Unlike other people and relationships!
Love falls apart.
You can’t control the unstable thing, the other person. Film history is there. Citizen Kane’s going to be Citizen Kane after we’re gone. So, I put my love there! [Laughs.] Well, my faith.
Back to Before Midnight: The movies in the series stay the same in so many ways — you’re really committed to that title font. But there are also subtle differences … did you reference any movies before you went into it this time?
Nah, I never think of other films as I make these. The only reference points are the other films in the series. The same tone I wanted then is what I want now for these characters and what we’re trying to achieve.
The humor feels a little sharper here. The fights are darkly funny and fun. I mean, not fun to live through; fun to watch.
That was the key. People think, “Ethan and Julie, it must have been tough to do this.” It’s like, no, that’s fun! From the writer’s viewpoint, we want that to be comedic in a way. It’s not funny for Jesse and Celine. But you’re watching two master manipulators, two really smart, quick people. Most fights aren’t even that. Most fights are a heavyweight against a lightweight: They’re over pretty quickly.
Or there’s dishware flying.
Yeah, but these two are evenly matched, both trying to get something while hiding it. He’s clearly manipulating her; she sees it and she’s now manipulating him in response by overresponding. If you look at it on the most fundamental level, it’s like you’re watching two pros. There’s the occasional shot below the belt. Whatever you got to do to win. No referee.
So your mature definition of love is less romantic whimsy and more masterful manipulation?
[Laughs.] Well, I kind of thought this movie was about how two people — who do love each other — negotiate space, negotiate a life. It’s so easy when you’re alone. You go, “I will move to New York or Chicago.” If you’ve got another person and some kids in school, everything’s like turning around a ship. This was a portrait of people at 41. That’s the age where you either commit and make it work by communicating, or you still have enough of your life left to say I’m not really happy. I can see myself starting again. You don’t see 84-year-olds getting divorced. They’ve committed and there’s not much else.
The fights aren’t as clever. You tend to grunt rather than come up with witty ripostes.
We will, when we’re 84. [Ethan, Julie, and I] decided. We’re going to do a comedic remake of Amour.
I’d love to see that. Honestly, I hope you guys are still doing these at 84.
Yeah, I hope Jesse and Celine will have some funny things to say about the world then.