Having amassed a consistently intelligent, thoughtful, resourceful (given the miniscule budgets on which he initially existed) and profoundly influential body of work, Richard Linklater remains at the forefront on independent-minded American cinema.
Hot on the heels of the critical and commercial success of School of Rock, Before Sunset sees Linklater returning to Jesse and Celine, the two characters (played by Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy) to whom we were first introduced in 1995’s Before Sunrise. A ‘romance for realists’, Before Sunset finds them older, wiser and just a little sadder.
Jason Wood: How did the idea of making a follow up to Before Sunrise come about and what kind of ideas and loose threads from the original did you wish to explore?
Richard Linklater: We actually started talking about it a year after we finished the first film and the more we got into it the more we began to forget about the first film all together. In fact, we didn’t even re-watch it until a week and a half into shooting the new one. The intention was to see what naturally came up and to let the subtle dialogue between the younger selves and the older selves just organically evolve; we certainly didn’t design it that way. I knew that by ignoring it there would be these nice little echoes. We approached it the same way as we did back then and were very demanding of each other. There is certainly a subtle interplay between the two films but I hope that this interplay isn’t too specific.
JW: Before Sunset is the result of a very collaborative writing process between Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy and yourself. How did this dynamic play out?
RL: It wasn’t that much different to the first time around. I had an existing script when I cast the first movie but the structure that was always going to be in place was that the two actors were going to work with me to re-write, personalise and internalise to make sure that there was a lot of them in the project. I was very conscious of looking for actors who were also writers and creative collaborator; I needed to get the pitch of honesty I was looking for. Julie and Ethan understood this perfectly the first time and perhaps even more the second time around. Having already established the characters and lived with them this long it made sense that we would work on the characters and the script together.
JW: You described Before Sunrise as ‘a romance for realists’. Do you think this description equally applies to Before Sunset?
RL: This was always our goal – and my goal, certainly – in terms of approaching something that I guess may fall into the very broad romantic comedy genre. I wanted to do my own take on it and avoid making another Pretty Woman or the kind of film that seems to be from another universe entirely, because it is so opposite to your own life. I just wanted to take the cues for the film from my personal experience and in doing so hopefully reflect the experiences of many people who may be watching.
I wanted it to have an incredibly romantic vibe without resorting to the cliché of having music swelling every time somebody looked at each other. I wanted the romantic core notion of this deep connection between two people and I think that in itself can be pretty real. I mean who doesn’t go through their lives without having some similar experience? It is just how you deal with that and how you treat it and we wanted everyone to seemingly exist in the real world of Jesse and Celine.
JW: I was impressed by the honesty toward the characters -for example you show the unhappiness of their lives post-Vienna and the fact that Jesse is in a very unhappy relationship and has a young child. This sense of disappointment is not something that you would ordinarily see in a film of this kind.
RL: To be honest they can suffer these disappointments and still be intelligent and compassionate people. They are more adult now and the only real thing that is different is that they have nine more years of life and the accumulation of that has perhaps made them better people. It’s just the way life unfolds; you can’t live a life without disappointments. I don’t mean to suggest that all youthful ideals are crushed, that’s not it at all – they are perhaps a little more cynical but equally passionate and intelligent as a result of the nine more years that life has given them.
JW: In terms of the film’s structure, it unfolds almost in real time, a concept I would imagine that made it quite difficult to shoot.
RL: That was probably the biggest single challenge of the movie but it’s also what is the movie. The idea to set it in real time was a challenge both content wise and geographically speaking; we couldn’t cut out anything and had to have it all planned out like a very intricate puzzle. Every film has its big challenges and this was ours. We also wanted to make it seem spontaneous and seamless. I would say that this starts with the style of acting, the idea being that it is improvised, and then the style of the film itself. I always felt that the film should resemble a documentary and the kind of documentary that draws absolutely no attention to itself. If people were to come out of this movie talking about specific shots then in a way I think that we have lost something, because it is so much more about the spontaneous moment between them and I didn’t want anything to distract from that.
JW: This must have been difficult to pull off, making a scripted and meticulously planned film seem as if it were a slice of life.
RL: Well it was, but people do believe these people and feel that their lives are unfolding in front of them, and I think that this is a tribute to how hard Ethan and Julie worked. In fact, they were never not working because it had to be so tight before it could be that loose. It was an interesting segue when we went from being co-writers to being actors and director because I think it was then that the enormity of the task ahead really hit them. I’m actually very proud of them.
JW: I like the ambiguity of the film and the ambiguity of the characters. This is the third time we have seen Jesse and Celine, as they also appeared in animated form in Waking Life. Is it this ambiguity that allows you to keep returning to them?
RL: I think so, but also the scene they did in Waking Life was almost five years ago – a half-way point as it turns out – and it was just fun to check in with them even in their disembodied cinematic dream state world. At this point we all realised that we all really liked working together and working with these characters and that the first one wasn’t just a fluke. After it had theoretically been put out there by all of us we felt that we had simply had to pursue these characters. There is a real chemistry I feel between the three of us; it’s a joyful collaboration.
JW: If you look at your films collectively there are themes that recur: communication; the journey from adolescence to adulthood and the attendant choices with which we are faced, generational angst and travel to name but a few. Are these the themes that still interest you?
RL: They do. So many of the films I have made have been based on actual experiences and the various points I have been at during my life, but I don’t think of these things consciously, they just come back. I’ll wake up and find myself making another film about people just talking and I think this must be who I am; you settle into it, just as you do with life. When I first got into film I thought, ‘now I can do this and now I can do that’ and then you do it ten or eleven times, and it dawns on you that it is only a little piece of the pie that you are interested in.
We are all prisoners of our own personalities, our own interests and indeed our own abilities. As you realise what you can do and where you are led the world narrows, but that’s okay. Just as you settle into the kind of person you are then you also settle into the kind of filmmaker you are, there is no point in battling it. I actually feel in a good place right now and can follow my instincts in regard to what I should be doing. I’m lucky in that I can follow my muse even if this leads me into School of Rock or The Newton Boys, or something that may not ostensibly feel like a Richard Linklater film.
JW: You seem to revel in defying convention.
RL: Again it’s not a real conscious effort to go out and defy convention; it’s more a lack of interest in convention. For example with School of Rock and the genre of the teenage movie, I simply decided what it was that I don’t like about most teenage movies and set about doing my own version, trying to personalise what teenage movies mean to me. School of Rock also reflects the fact that I never did get on with institutional environment and attempts to offer my take on it.
JW: Are the motivations that originally inspired you to begin making films all those years ago the same or have they also evolved with time?
RL: I often think about what motivated me in the first place and the fact is that the core love of cinema is always there. The day that’s not there…when I first got into film I wasn’t positive that I would be a director as I wasn’t sure that I had the skills. I felt that I did and often had films in my head that I could see and view and I’m very thankful that I have got to make films – but I still feel that even had I not got to direct, I would still be doing something involved with film in some other capacity. In fact, I am involved in other capacities, such as the film society that I run in Austin. To me it’s all the same, writing about film, showing films, it’s all tied up with the bigger picture: the love of film. If I ever didn’t feel that anymore then I simply wouldn’t do this.
JW: You could always go back to working on oil rigs.
RL: Hopefully not. That was more of a young man’s game. I just feel lucky that they keep letting me do this. I have to say the older I get the motivations have become less specific. I’ve just done what I guess would be officially termed a sci-fi movie, an adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly – and people think that I ploughed through hundreds of sci-fi movies but in fact I didn’t watch one. Laurence Olivier always said that it takes twenty years to internalise the craft of acting and I kind of feel the same way about directing, and it is now coming up for twenty years that I first picked up a movie camera. I no longer feel the need to question my artistic choices as to how I want to shoot a movie; I can just show up. I know what I’m doing now.
Jason Wood is the author of 100 American Independent Films, published by the Bfi.