Friday, May 24, 2013

BEFORE MIDNIGHT (2013)—SFIFF56 Closing Night Q&A With Richard Linklater & Julie Delpy

Photo courtesy of Pamela Gentile, San Francisco Film Society.
With Richard Linklater's Before Midnight (2013) opening theatrically this weekend, here at The Evening Class we offer a triple toast. First, Ryan Lattanzio's interview with Richard Linklater and Julie Delpy; second, a transcript of their on-stage conversation with Mike Jones at the 56th San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF); and following, a transcript of the Q&A after the SFIFF Closing Night screening of Before Midnight.  Naturally, all three entries are not for the spoiler-wary!!

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Introducing Before Midnight—the third in a series of films preceded by Before Sunrise (1995) and Before Sunset (2009)—Richard Linklater expressed thanks to San Francisco Film Society Executive Director Ted Hope and programmer Rachel Rosen for choosing Before Midnight as the festival's closing night film, and added how special it was to take part in Ted Hope's first festival for the Film Society. "San Francisco, you're lucky to have him," Linklater declared, wishing Hope many more festivals. He apologized that Ethan Hawke couldn't make the screening (busy finishing up a film in Australia), but he was happy that Julie Delpy could join in the evening's festivities. Delpy thanked the crowd for their warm, enthusiastic reception and invited them to stick around for a Q&A session afterwards. She promised to answer almost every question.

After the film, Rosen started off the questioning by noting that nine years ago Linklater pulled off the incredible feat of making a sequel that lived up in every way to its predecessor and asked if Linklater could speak to the risk of making the third movie?

Linklater reiterated his remarks from the evening before at his on-stage conversation with Mike Jones, that making Before Sunset was much scarier and felt much more of a risk than making Before Midnight, which was a difficult film to make but less scary in a way; but, that being said, making Before Midnight happened in the same way as making Before Sunset. As with Before Sunset, there was a six-year period of no serious ideas and no serious consideration about making a third film, merely joking about it, and then somewhere along the way they realized that Celine and Jesse were still living characters who had something to say about their current situation in life. Jokingly, Linklater remarked, "We're currently on hiatus for six years."

Photo courtesy of Tommy Lau, San Francisco Film Society
Delpy offered that it was the writing that made Before Midnight more difficult than Before Sunrise in choosing to depict a more domestic side of Celine and Jesse's relationship and the very real issues arising between them, which were no longer "cute and flirty, as you might have noticed." Notwithstanding, Linklater asserted that they still wanted the narrative to be romantic. It's not that Before Midnight is anti-romantic. It just hedges the definition of "romantic" and shifts it around a bit. Celine and Jesse are still talking, still communicating and making each other laugh, and they're still sleeping together, which is pretty good for being over 40.

When they became serious about writing Before Midnight, Rosen asked if there were narrative elements that they instantly knew would carry over from the previous films? In particular, she was thinking of Celine's line in Before Sunset where she said, "Maybe we only get along because we walk around in cities in the same season." Did they know automatically that they wouldn't be setting the third film in a city with a warm climate? Or was the narrative up for grabs?

Delpy answered that early on, though not right away, they decided not to set the story in a city and instead to show them on holiday. Once they "found Greece", it took the story to a different level. Linklater added that they had outlined the story and were pretty far down the road in their conception of what the film would be, but the last little bit was finding the location, which ended up being Greece. The location helped define the film.

Rosen asked them to talk about the big dinner scene in Before Midnight, which she considered a significant departure from the first two films for being more populated with multiple conversational perspectives.

Photo courtesy of Tommy Lau, San Francisco Film Society
Linklater explained that they decided early on that they couldn't do the same thing with Before Midnight that they'd done with the previous films in the sense of structuring the story around a chance encounter. They knew the narrative had to be age-appropriate, as that quality of chance encounters happens less and less as one grows older. To see them in their lives meant placing them among all these other people. Delpy added that it was important to show Celine and Jesse at this stage in life compared to the younger couple at the dinner table to consider the possibilities of what it might have been like for them to meet each other today with all the new technologies available. Similarly, it was important to contrast their relationship against the older couple who had both lost their spouses. Linklater stated it was fun to show how your feelings about your own relationship in your social self is very different than your private self and how you can say things in a social setting that comment upon the private sphere through passive-aggressive jokes; jokes that aren't really jokes.

Admitting that acting is mysterious to her, Rosen enquired how difficult it was to achieve the natural, "non-acting" style adopted by Delpy and Hawke?

The goal of the films, Delpy answered, the bridge across the films, was to purposely give the acting in the films the feel of not acting, to elicit the sense of listening to two people actually talking. That was the acting style appropriate to the films. There are many different types of acting, from basically wearing old age make-up, to imitating historical characters, but the goal in the Before films was distinct. They achieved that first through the lengthy process of writing and coming up with words that they knew they would eventually have to say as actors, and then they rehearsed and rehearsed until the words sounded natural. Coming from a musical background, Delpy remembered and used her training as a child playing clarinet or bleeding from her fingers playing violin. Basically, she expressed, acting is like learning a musical instrument in that it requires repetition and tons of rehearsal so that you can finally just step up and do it without thinking. Nonetheless, the shoot was painful and both she and Hawke were filled with constant anxiety.

"She's still traumatized by it," Linklater apologized, but he knew their abilities and pushed them to do long, extended takes. Eventually, Delpy joked, Linklater would want them to do an entire movie in one take. But she was aware of the opportunity he had given them as actors to challenge themselves. He directed them in such a way that it allowed them to meet the challenge, giving them the freedom to go for it, but providing a safety net for them at the same time. In other words, as a director Linklater trusted his actors, which can't always be said about other directors, and the trust was there from the very first film, which was amazing and unusual.

Photo courtesy of Tommy Lau, San Francisco Film Society
All those degrees of difficulty—acting natural, long takes—reminded Rosen of The Five Obstructions (2003) and how placing constraints can help artists open up creatively. She asked if they were conscious of doing that?

Linklater admitted that it did seem like every film of his, not only the Before series, had some kind of insurmountable challenge to overcome. If a film doesn't naturally have a cross to bear, he creates it, because it makes everyone work really hard.

At that juncture, Rosen opened up the questioning to the audience. A fellow in the front row was struck by the hotel scene in Before Midnight, which—up to then in the series—was the most physically intimate Celine and Jesse had been and brought their relationship to a whole new level. He wanted to know how Linklater accomplished that?

"Are you talking about Julie's breasts?!" Linklater retorted. He joked they had been trying to get them in all of the films and that he told her it was now or never. In order to get to that new level, Delpy explained, the nudity served a certain realism they were striving to capture. Primarily it was to depict a moment that could have happened that doesn't happen. She exposes her breasts but then she hides them. The intensity of that moment wouldn't have been communicated had she been wearing a bra. "Could we have gotten a PG-13 rating if you'd been wearing a bra?" Linklater wondered. "We blew it," Delpy laughed. The hotel scene, Linklater finessed, was actually a lot of scenes. It was a love scene that lasted nearly 30 minutes and was its own mini-movie. It was a fun scene to face and they accepted the challenge of depicting how arguments actually build between people who love each other but harbor glossed-over resentments.

Photo courtesy of Tommy Lau, San Francisco Film Society
The Before series, Linklater added, offer great areas for declaration because this is the way people really speak. The dinner scene, especially, was a great place to share opinions, and to change subjects, and these films open themselves up to demonstrate that and contain a lot of different concerns at once that a more traditional film can't. Most films are tightly-structured short stories where everything advances the plot, such that the characters have no chance to drift away. But this is what they allowed themselves in these films and it opened up the opportunity to explore what was on their minds. Their working process is such that they're often approaching the film from where they're at in that moment in their real lives and trying to get things into the movie that reflect their own lives.

But all ideas are fully vetted between the three of them. If he has something he's trying to get into the movie but he gets two blank stares from Delpy and Hawke, then it's out. Which happens more often than not, Delpy confirmed. The film as a final creative product is the distilled version of the work process they have endeavored for years where they've discarded many ideas and pushed each other to make the narrative more interesting and deep. They give as much as they can and the movies are fun to return to as testaments of their process.

Aware that they had talked at length about their work process, I nonetheless wanted to know how they arrived at the narrative element of the twin girls, which was something I was not expecting out of the story; but, which delighted me.

Linklater answered that—with eight kids between he, Delpy and Hawke at this point—they talked a lot about what kind of children Celine and Jesse would have in their forties. They settled upon twins early in the process and that might have come from the fact that Linklater himself has identical twin girls (who were pissed at him for not casting them). They were lovely to watch running around. They were like miniature Julie Delpys. They also enhanced the paradisical fantasy of being on holiday in Greece. Celine and Jesse have gotten so much of what they probably wanted from the world. If they could have gone back nine years, they would have gladly signed on for this life, easily—this is a good scenario for them—and yet, they're still negotiating the world as humans always do. There's trouble in paradise.

A young woman asked how Linklater achieved emotional violence within words and if he could address the gendered conflict between Celine and Jesse? She felt that Jesse was not such a bad guy.

Linklater liked the idea of violence within words and jokingly compared it to his interaction with Delpy. What struck him was how, after an argument, you always think about what you could have said better. Delpy agreed that it was fun to write the argument because who hasn't had an argument with someone they live with? You go places in an argument that you sometimes later regret an hour later but you're speaking out of anger. No one can exasperate you and take you to that place more than a person you love.

But as for Jesse not being such a bad guy, Delpy defended her character Celine by saying how offended she was by Jesse's comment early in the film regarding his son. She knows what he's actually getting at. She's manipulative, yes, but so is he in his own way. They're two master manipulators going at each other.

Following up on that, another young woman asked about Celine's emotional resistance to Jesse? It seemed to her that Celine's reaction was out of proportion to what Jesse was trying to offer. It seemed he was really trying and she was resisting all his efforts. Why was she so angry at him?

Delpy again defended her character. Celine said it straightforward to Jesse: if she didn't fight back, she was going to end up being a subservient wife and mother living in a suburb of Chicago. Celine is an argumentative and strong person who won't let anyone else destroy—not only her life—but their lives together. She's aware that moving to Chicago would destroy their relationship. It's probably not the first time that she and Jesse have fought over this issue of Jesse's decision to stay with her in Paris. Delpy affirmed: "She didn't force him to. It was his decision." That got a noticeable rise out of her audience (and, for me, provided the evening's most telling moment of the audience's reaction to the storyline; they were clearly on Jesse's side).

Photo courtesy of Tommy Lau, San Francisco Film Society
The final question came from a man who admitted that—after watching all three films—he no longer considered My Dinner With Andre the talkiest film in the world. But he wondered if Linklater had any reservations about deciding to be so conversational? If he worried about his audience accepting it?

Linklater responded, "When you're making a construct, like a film, there is an audience in the back of your mind. That's a director's job to a large degree to see it from an audience's perspective. That's what we're doing." The audience that he has imagined for the film is abstracted through his hope that they will appreciate the film's heightened honesty. Delpy was bemused by the notion that it's a taboo area of representation to show couples who have been together more than 10 years working through their problems. Which was not only what they wanted to show, Linklater furthered, they also wanted to show the triumph of Celine and Jesse sticking it out, of trying to find each other in their current situation, not being satisfied with the past but trying to find ways to communicate into the future.

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