A lot can happen to a couple in nine years: You can get married your soulmate, have kids, change apartments (or move to other countries) and grow together—or grow apart. The last time we saw Celine (Julie Delpy) and Jesse (Ethan Hawke)—the lovelorn duo from Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise (1995) and Before Sunset (2004)—they were sitting in a Paris apartment, contemplating whether he would catch a plane back to the States or stay behind. Another nine years have passed, and the third and latest film of the series, Before Midnight, opens to the sight of Jesse bidding farewell to his son at an airport in Greece; when he slides into a car in which Celine is waiting for him, we can guess what decision he's made. And as we spend the next 108 minutes getting reacquainted with this twosome, it becomes apparent that time has been kind to Celine and Jesse in various ways. Trouble, of course, has a way of finding even the closest couples.
Much like the characters, the trio behind this trilogy have aged some, but the minute that Linklater, Delpy and Hawke walk into a conference room in Sony Pictures’ uptown offices, a sense of familiarity is apparent. You can tell they’re happy to see each other again, happy to be working together once more and, most of all, happy to talk about the next chapter of the Before saga—something their long, laughter-filled chat with TONY confirms. (Our take on the film after its premiere at Sundance last January is here; you can read our review here.)
Time Out New York: So, besides the fact that you seem to do these movies every nine years, and that everybody had been asking about a third film since the last movie was released…
Richard Linklater: You joke about that, but…
Ethan Hawke: Every dinner party I’ve gone to since Before Sunset came out, I’ve heard, “We know exactly how the next one should go.” I’m not kidding, everybody had their own ideas about what happened to these characters. That really was the elephant in the room.
Julie Delpy: Alexander Payne came up to me somewhere and told me, “Oh, I know what the third one will be. It’s a no-brainer.”
Ethan Hawke: He said that to me, too.
Richard Linklater: He’s never said that to me. He knows better. [All laugh] Sorry, you had a question?
Time Out New York: What was it that made you all want to return to these characters now, and at this point in their lives?
Richard Linklater: There was actually a lot of resistance toward doing a third one. We initially didn’t want to come back to this story, mainly for the reason Ethan just said. So many people had so many expectations about what happened next that you sort of felt a burden; none of us wanted to mess it up. But once we figured out we were going to do it in this remote spot in Greece and not tell anybody what we were doing, that burden went away. Nobody knew we were making this, so we could just figure out where we wanted to take things on our own.
Ethan Hawke: Rick was actually very smart about this. He kept everything on the down-low.
Julie Delpy: I was in New York doing press for my film [2 Days in New York], and people started asking me all these questions about a third movie right before we were set to fly to Greece, actually; I kept saying, “Oh, who knows if it will ever happen!” But really, I was like, Shit, did someone find out?
Richard Linklater: Yeah, I was worried when you came here to do press, that something would slip out.…
Julie Delpy: “I don’t know anything about a third one, I’m just going to go on holiday in Greece for a few months.…” [Laughs]
Time Out New York: How was Greece decided upon as the locale?
Richard Linklater: That actually wasn’t a very huge decision at all. We were already pretty far into the process of hashing things out when we thought, Well, we need to make this somewhere, so…why not Greece?
Julie Delpy: Yeah, but it did make a difference, Rick. We might have waited another year to make this if Greece hadn’t become a viable option.
Richard Linklater: Of course, but we could have done it other places, like Italy. I didn’t go to Greece until last May…we’d already thought up a lot of the ideas of where we wanted to take things. But it worked for us really well, and it wasn’t like we were in Santorini or any of the usual places where people shoot. Once I knew we weren’t in danger of making Mamma Mia… [Laughs] We had a good setup and shot in places where nobody films, so it felt like the real deal.
Ethan Hawke: It was obvious to me when Rick wrote both of us from Greece that you could tell, okay, we’re making the movie and we’re going to do it there. I mean, you could just picture how certain scenes we’d written outlines for could work if you did it there, and…
Richard Linklater: …where you’d be able to film it by looking at a certain location. Or thinking, Hey, we should write this scene now because here’s where they would go if they did this. I mean, it really came together quickly once we settled on that country. We’d gone there ten weeks before shooting started, just to write and rehearse things, and I can’t tell you how much of a difference it made to the final product. It really inspired us in so many ways.
Time Out New York: The locations are a big part of all of these films, but given that this movie is about time and the burden of the past, Greece seems like an especially apt place to pick.
Ethan Hawke: Vienna and Paris have pretty storied histories too. But I see what you’re saying; the places we’ve picked for all three have sort of synched up to the notion of what we’ve tried to get at with each film.
Richard Linklater: You go to Vienna, and you do feel the burden of the past: You think, I’ll never be Mahler, I’ll never be Freud.…
Ethan Hawke: I’ll never be Orson Welles standing in a doorway.… [Laughs]
Richard Linklater: But when you talk about Greece, you talk about ancient history. It’s all around you there.
Ethan Hawke: The third one is about Celine and Jesse being in the Garden of Eden—and they’re still unhappy. Where else could you communicate trouble in paradise better than in Greece? It works, for some reason.
Julie Delpy: When it works well, you simply go with it.
Richard Linklater: We’ve intellectualized a lot of this after the fact, but at the time it was: “Yeah, this feels right. Will we get good meals? Are there nice places to stay right on the Mediterranean?”
Ethan Hawke: “Will we be able to find babysitters?”
Richard Linklater: “Yes to all of those? Great, let’s go.”
Time Out New York: When it came time for the three of you to write, did you find it was easier to get back to the place you were all at when you wrote the first two films?
Richard Linklater: On one level, yes; we worked together on Midnight in pretty much the exact same way that we did on the other ones. But obviously, we’re all in very different phases of our life and the circumstances behind each of these movies have been different, so that’s affected the working process between the three of us.
Ethan Hawke: I’d compare it to being in a band: I know the instrument I’m supposed to play and how the others synch up with the song, so when the three of us get together, a certain muscle memory kicks in. You know, it’s funny, I recently moved, and as I was going through some things, I came across my Before Sunrise script. And nestled in between the pages was a letter Rick wrote me when we were filming that movie, which basically said, “Hey, I know this project has been uncomfortable for you, because I’m asking you guys to share a lot of your personal lives here. But don’t worry. You’re safe.” I needed to hear that at the time, because it really felt that we were asked to be very intimate, very open with stuff, in a way I wasn’t used to.
Julie Delpy: We were being asked to bring a lot of things to the table and be very collaborative in creating these characters. Still, it was easy to fall back into that old rhythm, especially after we rewatched the first two movies halfway through the writing. [To Linklater and Hawke] You guys realize that if we make a fourth one, we’ll have to go back and watch all three of these movies to get back up to speed, right?
Richard Linklater: Shit, then I guess we aren’t making a fourth movie, guys. I mean, that’s almost six hours of viewing!
Julie Delpy: That’s practically the length of a long flight.
Ethan Hawke: That’s practically the length of one viewing of Che. [All laugh]
Time Out New York: What sort of discussions did you guys have about the doling out information regarding what’s happened to Celine and Jessie in the nine years since Sunset? It takes a good 20 or 30 minutes of screen time before you start to piece together how their relationship has evolved over that course of time.
Julie Delpy: We were all very determined to avoid large chunks of exposition coming at the viewer all at once.
Richard Linklater: We sort of took our cues from the second movie, in which major details about their lives—namely, that Jessie is married and has a kid—aren’t given to the audience until well into the movie. If you were observing a couple whose history you didn’t know, you’d have to slowly piece together what happened through certain clues. I mean, we want to answer any and all possible questions you’ll have about what’s happened in the interim, and what their lives are like now. We just aren’t going to give you that in one long, indigestible chunk.
Ethan Hawke: So many people want to know, did he miss the plane or not? What happened next? You have to make a nod to that somewhere. Its just matter of doing that delicately and realistically.
Julie Delpy: That’s a big reason why I love that big dinner scene in the house, because it was a great way to reveal things without sounding like you were being expository. You have that young couple there who doesn’t know them that well, so you have the perfect excuse to talk about Celine and Jesse’s history together.
Ethan Hawke: “How did you two meet?” “Oh, there’s a great story behind that, let us tell you!” [Laughs]
Julie Delpy: That’s what you do in real life, when you meet at dinner parties; you trot out the story.
Richard Linklater: The origin story!
Ethan Hawke: The relationship myth!
Time Out New York: You each write for the other characters, correct? It’s not just “Ethan, you’ll write the Jesse bits, and Julie, you take the Celine lines….”
Ethan Hawke: Yeah, it really is the three of us writing all of this together.
Julie Delpy: And rewriting and rewriting and rewriting it together.
Ethan Hawke: There’s a lot of Rick in Jesse and Celine. A lot.
Julie Delpy: It all blends together. I mean, you could point out certain sections that largely come from one person: I wrote most of the older woman’s monologue about death, Rick wrote the bit about all the men looking at that penis….
Richard Linklater: Naturally. [Laughs]
Julie Delpy: But there’s no hard, fast rule. There are lines that I say to Jesse that Ethan wrote for me to say to him, and vice versa. I don’t think you’d get the same result if the two of us were all just writing for our characters and Rick wrote the lines for everybody else. It’d be a little stilted, I think.
Richard Linklater: Even when we went into that first movie with a script that I’d written, you guys threw a lot of things into the final mix. Then we went into the second movie, we all had an idea of what the big picture would be, so it made sense to really look at this from the perspective of a team. There’s a good digressive push and pull between all of us. It’s been filtered through all of us by the time it gets to the screen.
Time Out New York: Your analogy of a band seems apt here, Ethan.
Ethan Hawke: It’s very much what it feels like. “Hey, I know the harmony to this, here’s where I come in. Actually, this chorus isn’t working, because you’re essentially repeating what you did before, why don’t we put that part here.” A lot of it is that one of us will say something funny to the other, and then we’ll spend two hours trying to find a place where we can fit that line into the movie. [Laughs] It’s all one elaborate steal from each other.
Time Out New York: Do you guys take it as a compliment when folks think these movies are improvised, as opposed to being scripted and rehearsed down to the last pause?
Ethan Hawke: Yes and no. Imagine some guy sits down at a piano and just effortlessly plays this amazing Schubert piece. Most folks would go, Wow, I can’t believe you just whipped that out. And he’s thinking, Well, I didn’t just whip it out, I learned the piece and practiced every day for 20 years so I could pull this off! The goal is that you can just make it seem like it’s being tossed off easily, but the person wants you to know how hard he worked to get to that point. I mean, if Julie and I could improvise so well that we could just do a single 13-minute take in a car where we set up an entire movie’s themes and plot points, and filled in the audience on our characters’ back stories….
Julie Delpy: We’d be fucking geniuses. [All laugh]
Richard Linklater: There’s such a weird mythology around improvisation in movies. I mean, even if you look at Cassavetes movies, which are credited as being largely improvised, they are mostly set up with a structure and then there’s room for creating “moments” when the camera is rolling. It’s like jazz, in a lot of ways: Here’s where your solo comes, you know the key and the melody, go do your thing. But I think the term gets overused and abused a lot.
Ethan Hawke: I can always tell when actors are improvising onscreen by how many times they say fuck. It’s a dead giveaway.
Richard Linklater: It’s great to hear people say it feels so off-the-cuff, but I have started a bit of a campaign this time out to let people know that no, every single word in here was scripted. And having had a front-row seat to what Ethan and Julie have done in these three movies, I have to say: It’s a lot harder to act in a 13-minute take and say all the lines perfectly and hit all your beats than to just “wing it.” You’ve got to give credit where credit is due.
Time Out New York: Given that you’ve all said you put a lot of personal stuff into these films, do you find that you get a sense of catharsis out of doing a Before movie that you don’t get from other projects?
Richard Linklater: Interesting question…hmm.
Ethan Hawke: I find that I do. I’ve always ended up learning things about myself in participating in these three movies. I’ve also co-written with a very powerful, very intelligent woman in three very different stages of her life, and that’s given me an insight into the female experience that I wouldn’t normally have—and that has made me rethink a lot of things I’ve learned over the years about masculinity and being a man, frankly.
Richard Linklater: Yeah, I’ll second that.
Ethan Hawke: That said, it’s also really hard for me to go back and watch Before Sunset because I remember how much pain I was in at the time, and how I was channeling a lot of that pain into Jesse. It wasn’t like the character is saying, “I’m in so much pain!” But you can see it. And when I recently watched Before Midnight…I mean, there are some tough things going on for these people, but he’s in a better place. It made me realize, Yeah, I’m in a better place than I was nine years ago as well. It helped give me perspective, in a weird way.
Julie Delpy: I don’t think that’s weird at all, Ethan. These movies are cathartic. So much stuff that we express in that room when the three of us are writing doesn’t make it in to the script, but those moments are what allow us to get to where we need to be in order to make these movies. You get the chance to open up without an agenda. Actually, my therapist in Paris once told me that being creative is a better form of therapy for me than sitting on his couch….
Richard Linklater: That’s what most artists do though, right? They use creativity as a form of therapy. I mean, we don’t do these movies just to have some sense of catharsis, but in sharing what’s going on in our lives and then putting a lot of that into the movies, I think there’s something therapeutic about that.
Julie Delpy: It’s not like we’re doing some 1970s wild, experimental theater piece, or just the three of us running around a room and going “Arggh!” [Waves hands wildly]
Ethan Hawke: Yeah, it’s not John Lennon screaming, “Mother!” for hours on end. That’s catharsis. [All laugh] Let me ask you a question: Do you think the movie is optimistic?
Time Out New York: I do, yeah. Granted, I’m married, I have a child and I’m in my 40s, so….
Richard Linklater: You’re right in this movie’s sweet spot, man!
Ethan Hawke: It’s a hard age to portray, especially if you’re talking about romance. It’s much easier to make a movie about twentysomethings in love. But I’m with you here. Whether they’re fighting or fucking, they still want to be with each other.
Richard Linklater: When you’re in your forties, you’ve dug deeper into yourself, you’ve bonded with your partner in ways that you probably haven’t in your twenties and you’ve experienced more things with each other. That makes the romance you get that much more profound, and that’s what we’re trying to get at here, in our own way. I wanted you to feel like these two people have the courage to stick through good times and bad times. I want you to feel that any optimism they have about the future has been earned.
Before Midnight opens May 24.
Follow David Fear on Twitter: @davidlfear