Thursday, May 23, 2013

BEFORE MIDNIGHT (2013)—An Onstage Conversation With Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy & Mike Jones

Noting that the 15-day length of the San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF) is longer than the average film festival, programmer Rachel Rosen posed that ordinarily she would be feeling a little sad about the festival coming to an end if it weren't for her being so excited about the festival's closing night entry: Richard Linklater's Before Midnight (2013) [official site], with Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke reprising their roles from the two earlier entries in Linklater's trilogy (Before Sunrise, 1995; Before Sunset, 2009).

Asserting that Before Midnight would prove to "still be a terrific experience to see" even without benefit of watching the two previous films, Rosen embraced the opportunity to introduce an onstage conversation with director Linklater and co-writer and star Julie Delpy on the evening before their closing night screening, so as to endeavor a more in-depth look at the Before series.

Previous documentaries like Michael Apted's Up series have shown how film captures the passage of time. Another notable example might be François Truffaut's Antoine Doinel cycle, whereby a character (and actor fetiche Jean-Pierre Léaud) mature before our eyes; a fetish Truffaut shared with Tsai Ming-liang (whose cinematic fondling of Lee Kang-sheng likewise measured the passage of time over a familiar body). "And, of course," Rosen added, "there have been Hollywood franchises with multiple parts that may or may not show character development and may or may not have the same actors playing those characters." But for Rosen, Linklater's Before trilogy remains unprecedented in its portrayal of fictional characters over time.

Rosen then introduced moderator Mike Jones, former editor for Indiewire and Variety, and currently a screenwriter with Pixar. Jones decided to frame his on-stage conversation with Linklater and Delpy by screening a series of clips from Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, which he offered as anticipatory gifts to prepare ourselves for viewing Before Midnight on closing night. Linklater confirmed the clips would be useful since—without really giving anything away—there are no flashback sequences in Before Midnight that revisit the earlier films.

The first clip showed Jesse inviting Celine off the train to spend the night with him wandering Vienna. Linklater recalled he had been inspired by meeting a young woman in the '80s with whom he spent a selfsame night, walking and talking, undeniably attracted. He had already made a couple of films but knew he wanted to make a film about what "that thing in the air" was between him and this young woman on that night back in 1989. The idea gestated for five years until production began on Before Sunrise.

"What was the thing in the air?" Jones asked.

"You know," Linklater grinned sheepishly. "We're lucky to have that in our lives and it happens more when you're young, unattached and able." Add to fleeting desire the element of youthful travel—Linklater was visiting his sister in Philadelphia—and being on the road with nothing he had to do. He was in a toy store and this girl began flirting with him and—because he wasn't in his home town—he felt emboldened to approach her and invite her to hang out with him once she got off work. She agreed and they spent the whole night together until he had to leave the following morning. He recalled Philly as being a good walking city.

From there, he took a trip to Berlin with his first film. He had never left the U.S. before and it was his first time to experience a city in another country, which is where the idea for Before Sunrise fully took hold with the addition of this international element. Admittedly, his experience was not so unique, many people have experienced the same thing when encountering their first European cities, but the idea for the movie was to make it minimal, about two people falling in love with each other, or however one might define whatever is going on between two people when there's such a strong attraction.

Before Sunrise arrived to Julie Delpy as a screenplay, for which she auditioned. Linklater drafted the script in 11 days with a female friend who had been in a couple of movies and whose opinion he trusted. The goal was to keep the collaboration balanced between gendered perpsectives. He felt his previous film Dazed and Confused had been overrun with testosterone. Despite there being a script, Linklater's endgame was to find a strong actress to help maintain a feminine presence and a strong actor to work alongside her and to have the two of them help him flesh out the script by bringing themselves fully to it. Looking back, casting these two roles and hooking up with Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy was an important moment in his creative life.

Delpy recalled liking Linklater's audition script. It was intellectual with characters talking a lot and expressing their thoughts. Even though she didn't agree 100% with what they were thinking, she liked the idea of two people expressing themselves over the course of one night. Once they began working together, her frustrations as a writer surfaced to help shape the script. Each of them took some part of the original script and either threw it out or workshopped it over the course of their three weeks in Vienna. "I fired the writer," Linklater joked, "even though I was the writer." The script was a jumping off point for the three of them to get to know each other well.  For example, with the scene on the train, Ethan asked Julie what kind of guy she would go for that could entice her off a train? Ethan had to work really hard because Julie admitted it would be hard for a guy to pick her up on a train, particularly because she's naturally freaked out by men in general.


The second clip from Before Sunrise was of Celine and Jesse pretending they're talking to each other on the phone. Although Before Sunrise appears improvised, it's actually a tight script that they all worked on as writers, cognizant of the architecture of the storytelling. They had a placeholder for a scene where the relationship between Celine and Jesse was meant to go to a whole new level and where each would express something personal about what they were feeling. So what would that be? That's where working in chronological sequence served a purpose. How could they know what that would be in the first week of working together? But by the time they got to that placeholder, Julie recalled a phone game she used to play with a guy who—though not necessarily her boyfriend—was a guy she was aiming to keep, impress and seduce. She suggested that they play the scene with Celine pretending to be on the phone with a girl friend talking about Jesse. It would be a good way to say what she felt indirectly, which was perfect and appropriate for them at that moment, expressed through a touch of shyness. "It doesn't always work," Delpy quipped, "but it worked in the film."

For something to end up in the film, it needed to be vetted by all three of them. By the time the idea reached the screen, it had been through all of their systems. Each of them could provide lots of suggested material that didn't make it into the film because the other two—or even one—didn't get it. As a director, Linklater explained, if the actors don't understand the scene, it's not going to work. As an actor, if the director doesn't get it or understand or think it's important to the film, again the performance won't work. They fell into the rhythm of that workshop process early on. So often in collaboration, people try not to hurt each other's feelings and remain polite, but they had a shorthand that worked between the three of them.

The flip side, Linklater furthered, is that they were just talking, free associating, digressing into crazy stories, which every now and then the other two found interesting. Sometimes Delpy would be joking around, trying to entertain them, and she would say something that the other two would like and they'd say, "That should be in the movie!" and she'd be, "Really? No way!" A lot of the workshop process involved supporting each other while pushing each other at the same time. Delpy likened it to digging in a coal mine and finding diamonds "or something that looked like diamonds."

Linklater noted that the workshop process had also evolved over the making of the three films. With the first film, Hawke and Delpy were on the page and taking the script as actors and whatever reworking or rewriting that took place was, in essence, melding with what was on the page and how they were trying to make it work. With the subsequent two films, Hawke and Delpy were involved as writers from the beginning of each project. It was never as simple as Delpy contributing only to Celine's character, or Hawke to Jesse's. They all three wrote for all the characters, even with their contributions to the first film.

Delpy recalled a scene in Before Sunset where Jesse tells Celine she will become a great mother. A friend of Delpy's found the line condescending and wondered how Delpy allowed the line to remain in the film? She had to tell her friend, "I wrote it for him. What are you talking about?" Often, the rudest lines levied against a character were written by the actor playing the character, so it wasn't like they were exacting insults at each other; rather, they were acknowledging the worst things others had been said about them. Delpy admitted it was weird but fun to write insults against her character Celine through Jesse's mouth. Linklater advised that Hawke was good at that himself, being a brutally honest writer who goes all the way with an idea, irregardless of how he comes off. He has no vanity with that.

The third clip from Before Sunrise involved Celine and Jesse discussing commitment and the fleeting divinity that exists between individuals. Having recently rewatched the clip, Mike Jones felt that Celine and Jesse are characters who continually fight against romance, even when it arrives in front of them. Characterizing Jesse as "a cynical 23-year-old boy, whose parents have divorced, and who's just broken up with a girl in Madrid", Jones queried whether Linklater and Delpy purposely configured romance as an obstacle for their characters to overcome?

Linklater qualified that their's was a self-conscious, self-aware romance. They're just old enough and aware enough to have had significant life experience by the age of 23. When you get to be too old, you look back and think of Celine and Jesse as just kids; but, that's yes and no. What age are you when you first get your heart broken? Pretty young. At 23, they've already been through enough. Even as actors, Delpy and Hawke had been through a lot by that time. All three of them were, in fact, both romantic, realistic and cynical at the same time.

Jones asked if romanticism and realism were meant to go together? Especially in the third film Before Midnight, they seemed to conflict, especially when discussed during the dinner scene. It's a conflicted subject, Linklater assessed, in everyone's life. It has historical precedent going back hundreds of years. Writers have written for centuries about the unhappiness of love and have warned against putting too much into something as unstable as passion or romance. It's impossible to possess another person.

Delpy suggested that—until Walt Disney showed up—most people associated romance with falling in love with someone and then killing yourself. After Disney, romance became thought of as something that ended up happy everafter; but, she argued, that's a relatively new conception of romance. Romance is a weak genre overall, Linklater rationalized, but they found themselves in it and decided to at least be as realistic about it as possible.

The romance as genre is further complicated, Delpy insisted, by being primarily anti-feminist. It depresses her that most narrative arcs for women in romances involve meeting a guy, struggling with him, and then marrying him as the main goal of the relationship. Romances were better in the '40s, she offered, with actresses like Katherine Hepburn, and they deteriorated in the '80s. Jones pursued Delpy's opinion on the romances of Nora Ephron and Nancy Meyers, which he considered written from the female point of view? "But don't women always want to get married at the end of those movies?" Delpy countered. "Not that I'm against marriage—I am for it, but for the gays only."

The fourth (and final) clip from Before Sunrise depicted Celine's decision that she and Jesse should not have sex, particularly since they would be parting in the morning and might never see each other again, which prompts Jesse to suggest that they should meet each other again in six months. Jones noted how Jesse would say something and then Celine would dig it out a little bit more. In both Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, Jesse is always trying to say the right thing, which Celine always tries to dig out. Delpy sees Celine as playful and probably smarter than Jesse. Women might be discrete in how they flirt but they know what they want as much as men, which she felt the clip aptly illustrated. In Before Midnight particularly, Jones observed, Jesse says something inadvertent that Celine digs at until it reveals a truth about his personality. He wondered how that developed from the earlier films?

"When we write," Delpy responded, "we analyze every word we write, and why we're saying them, and what's the motive behind them. There's not a word in the films that is an accident because the way we work is that we will pick at it until we drive ourselves crazy with the writing and the workshop and the rehearsal afterwards. Of course we watched the first two films before writing the third one, just as we watched the first film before writing the second one. We brainstorm on every detail of what the characters say and why they say it and what we can take from it."

Jones asked Linklater about the cinematography for the trilogy, the look of the films, and if there was any source material he had looked at beforehand? Linklater admitted that looking at the films of others is something a filmmaker does early on as he's developing his style; but, at this juncture, he doesn't do that anymore. Though they did watch Vincente Minnelli's The Clock (1945) with Judy Garland and Robert Walker when they were in Vienna shooting the first film. It was a difficult film to track down, he had never seen it though he knew what it was about—Robert Walker meets Judy Garland on leave in 1945 New York and they have a night together—so he wanted to see it, but not so much to guide the look of Before Sunrise. He just wanted to check out "the vibe" of the film. The three of them sat down to watch a 16mm print of the film that he rented and the film stayed with them that entire summer while they were shooting. He kept wondering what it was about The Clock that made it eternal and made it relevant to the present day? That motivated them to keep their eye on the eternal and not be tethered to a specific moment or time. They asked themselves: what will last? What goes on between people that is eternal? Even though aspects of The Clock—the listening booths for example—were anachronistic, long vanished by the mid-'90s.

Jones asked if it was a struggle to maintain the sense of timelessness throughout the arc of the three films? Linklater didn't feel so. It was part of what they were aiming to do. And as for the look of the film, he approached each film as he does all his films, wanting it to be realistic, naturalistic, "almost an elegant documentary." Nothing too fancy, with long shots, and extended takes that prompt the audience to feel the film is real. In the clip of the scene on the tram, for example, that was a seven-minute sequence as they went around Vienna and that helped set up the stylistic element of uninterrupted sequences, which accounts for why audiences probably felt the films were improvised. But technically it's nearly impossible to improvise such an extended take, it has to be thoughtfully scripted out and planned, but it's a testament to Delpy's and Hawke's talent that they made it seem so naturalistic.

In the first clip from Before Sunset Celine and Jesse discuss how they've changed since first meeting nine years past. Celine "digs" out of Jesse that he considered her "a fatty." Jones wanted to know what inspired Linklater to return to this material after nine years?

It was scary, Linklater admitted. To make the second film required a big leap of faith. The way Before Sunrise ended begged the question of whether Celine and Jesse ever saw each other again and if they actually met up six months later; but, no one was clamoring for a sequel. There was no pressure for a second film, no one wanted it, except the three of them. The joke between them was that it was the lowest-grossing film to ever spawn a sequel. What made the prospect of a second film scary was that making Before Sunrise was a special time creatively for all three of them and they risked screwing up what was special about that time and the first film if they messed up the second.

But in 1999 Linklater got Delpy and Hawke together again for a few days to work on a scene for Waking Life (2001). That's when, arguably, being in character from Before Sunrise —or at least some version of the character—prompted them to consider making a sequel. That's when they realized that Celine and Jesse were still alive. Working on the scene for Waking Life made Delpy remember how great it had been to work with Linklater and Hawke and how much fun they had filming Before Sunrise. They realized that it wasn't just a one-time thing and that they could create together again. The scene from Waking Life gave them the taste of that.


When you're young, Delpy added, you think you're going to encounter other creative opportunities like what they experienced working together on Before Sunrise, you expect them, and then you come to realize that you don't have great collaborative experiences with everyone you work with and that it's probably something that happens with very few people in your life. Getting older provided the perspective of how rare the relationship between the three of them actually was and how enjoyable it continued to be whenever they worked together.

Part of their collaboration was to purposely set obstacles for themselves creatively. They decided to do Before Sunset in real time, like a play, so nothing could be cut out. By contrast, Before Sunrise was a more conventional film that—though transpiring over one night—allowed for a lot of time. There was a scene or two they were able to cut out. Fairly early on as they conceived of the films, they elected to shoot chronologically, partly because of a joke Delpy had made about making a sex film in real time.  Hawke and Linklater had already made another film in real time (Tape, 2001) and found the challenge stimulating. In fact, Tape originated as an unproduced play that they read and wondered if they could adapt to a film. In a certain sense they had to paint themselves into a corner in order to make the sense of real time work.

Delpy and Hawke came on early to Before Sunset, first as writers working on the script. Linklater recalled the three of them sitting around Delpy's apartment in Paris writing the script. But then came that huge moment when they started to film and Delpy and Hawke had to actually enact all the lines they'd written. Exclaimed Linklater: "I never saw two actors work that hard. What they had to do was really tough. I was making the movie, but they were having to perform it."

Another challenge they gave themselves was limited time because they shot it in the late afternoon. So much of it they would rehearse first and then they would have a two-hour window to shoot maybe seven pages. They would do seven takes and that would be the movie. "The pressure was on. It was kind of like a sprint." But their creative process on working with real time in Before Sunset emboldened them stylistically for Before Midnight. The texts became longer and they could push themselves even further. Linklater concluded that in every film he sets goals for himself that are nearly impossible to pull off and seem endlessly insurmountable.

The second clip from Before Sunset staged Jesse's regret that Celine had not returned to Vienna after six months, wondering how different their lives might have been had she done so. Jones asked how different it had been for Delpy to approach Before Sunset as a writer, not just an actor, and how she went about creating the back story for what had happened to Celine over nine years?

That was her work with the second and third films, Delpy asserted, to think about what had happened to Celine over nine years: what she'd been through, what she achieved, what she did, what her relationships were like, how she broke up with her last boyfriend, everything. "Even if it doesn't end up on screen," Linklater explained, "they have to know it as characters."

Jones asked if Delpy had domain over her character, could she come into the writing process and say, "This is what my character has done over the past nine years" and have it be accepted? No, she answered, everything was discussed, everything was agreed upon. She never imposed anything. If they didn't like an idea, it wouldn't stick. This was the work they undertook for a couple of years before they actually began filming so that everything would be in place by the time they reached the set. That lengthy gestation period is what remains unique in their creative collaboration.

For example, with Before Midnight they had a big idea they worked with for nearly six months before finally dropping it from the film. But having worked with it helped them in a certain way. They learned a lot from working with that big idea and lived a back story, even if it wasn't what they ended up using in the movie. Jones asked Linklater if he could be specific about that big idea and Linklater said that, though Before Midnight ended up being set on holiday, originally they had considered choosing one day in the domestic life of Celine and Jesse. That was good for figuring out many of the domestic details between them that they could then carry into their holiday, wearing them so to speak. They ultimately decided that domestic life in real time would be boring and depressing. Who would want to watch them standing in line for 20 minutes waiting to pick up their kids?

Their workshop process likewise helped them decide whether or not they wanted to show unattractive or unlikeable qualities in Celine and Jesse that might upset audiences familiar with their characters; but, they wanted to express what they found honest and real in their own lives that isn't often seen on the big screen. Over the 19 years that the three of them have worked on this trilogy, they now have eight kids between them, which serves as fodder for the writing. So much of their time together is spent discussing how their personal lives are going for them and, naturally, this carries over into the writing.

The third clip from Before Sunset reveals how Celine's conflicted love for Jesse has kept her from committing to any other man in her life and how angry she has been at not being able to forget him. They argue in a taxi, which prefigures the arguments in store in Before Midnight. Jones asked how they built up to that argument?

Linklater answered that it started with the outline of the movie. As with Before Sunrise where the relationship between Celine and Jesse reaches a new level, in Before Sunset their relationship is "popping". They've come together, they've learned a lot about each other, and—because of what they've learned and now know—their relationship has to, again, achieve another level. The argument in the taxi, which is the second to last scene in the movie, is a make or break moment for both of them.


Delpy remembered the construction of the arc of that scene. Since Before Sunset was set over an hour and a half, it didn't quite have the three-act structure of most ordinary narratives; but, it did have structure. "Structures are universal," Delpy emphasized. Up to that point Celine has been playing and pretending that it wasn't a big deal that she hadn't shown up to meet Jesse in Vienna. She was pretending that she wasn't quite as hurt as him, that she was not as emotionally attached as him, but then she reveals her true feelings, which was essential to the arc of the scene. He's making steps towards her, she's playful, and a moment has to come when the energy bursts, and that moment for them was in the cab. But it was important to also include a sense of humor so that she wouldn't come off as a raving maniac. "It's become my specialty to flip out in cars," Delpy quipped.

After that moment they both know that Celine is in love with Jesse and has been for years; but, it angers Celine to admit this to herself. She's angry because it didn't work out between them the way it should have. Jesse's been expressing his regret all along but Celine has resisted him, imposing rationality over her feelings. She's the rational one between them. Her job requires her to be rational. She's not creative like Jesse. She's not a writer and can't romanticize the past like Jesse has. She's shut down that part of herself, which surfaces when she sees him again and he expresses his love for her over the years. It's a messy situation for both of them, Linklater added, Celine's in a relationship with someone, Jesse has a kid, is married, and lives on another continent, so nothing is easy between them.


Jones pointed out that Jesse implied to Celine that he wrote his book about their encounter in order to be in a French book store where she might show up. Yes, he implied that, Linklater agreed, but qualified that this was a time before texting, before all the many ways to communicate available now. It's almost laughable in Before Sunrise how they don't exchange information as people would easily do today. Instead, he has to throw the book out as a signal to her. Jesse's book, however, was of course his romanticized perspective of events from his point of view; but, from Celine's point of view, Jesse's book is problematic and raises issues between them. In Celine's defense, Delpy proposed that being involved with someone who writes is not necessarily a fun thing in general (which she could swear on, being a writer herself). Things that are said to a writer can end up in a story so you have to watch everything you say. To be involved with a writer, you have to make your peace with that, or not.

The final clip from Before Sunset was the film's closing sequence where Celine sings along with Nina Simone's recording of "Just In Time." Jones admitted that this was a scene he watched again and again, amazed at how they pulled it off. Linklater distinguished that—in contrast to the way Before Sunrise ends—the ending of Before Sunset begs the question of what happens after that fadeout, so much so that audiences repeatedly asked him about when he would make the third film. He considered the scene a perfect example of their collaborative workshop process. Very early in the outlining stage for Before Sunset, Nina Simone had died and they were hanging out, not even working on the script actually, and Delpy started talking about how she had seen Simone twice in concert, whereas Linklater never had. She basically did for Linklater what Celine did for Jesse and—as she was doing it—Linklater knew it would be the end to the second movie.


There's a beautiful ambiguity to that final scene, but one which Linklater insisted they had to earn, and which they earned when Celine says to Jesse: "Baby, you're going to miss that plane." The vibe for that line to work had to be appropriate. It was structured as ambiguous—which would have worked—but, in order for Celine to say that, a lot had to happen before then, not the least of which was Jesse's slow, silent ascent up the staircase to Celine's apartment, knowing something was going to happen with her even though he was a married man.

Jones pointed out that the silent ascent that opens the final scene of Before Sunset paralleled the silent scene in the record booth from Before Sunrise. He wanted to know how Linklater paced those silences against the wall of dialogue between these two characters? Again, Linklater explained that the pacing aimed to be emotionally authentic. It wasn't something that was overthought.

Jones asked Delpy what she carried over from the Before trilogy into her own directing? The two processes are quite different, she explained, because on her own films she writes alone or—when she has written with others—she's been more the boss. She wants her films to be distinct from Linklater's Before series, which falls into more of a romantic vein than she would ordinarily pursue. What she has learned from working with Linklater, however, is to be more open to collaboration, to listen to others, and to not be dictatorial on set. She's also learned to adjust expectations on her work. Originally, she never wrote romantic comedies and her scripts went nowhere, no one wanted to finance them, so it felt like she was banging her head against a wall. She had to learn to be trickier about securing financing.

1 comment:

Loz in Transit said...

Thanks for the comprehensive write-up. As a traveller and a big fan of Linklater, the 'Before...' movies have been hugely influential.
An overlooked romance has been the real life connection of these artists, how they've crafted a perfect illustration of what it means to be human. I would love to feel "that thing in the air", not just the connection depicted on screen but in their workshops that have spawned these Masterpieces. Love Delpy. Love Hawke. Love Linklater.