"Love has to be about more than commitment"

Richard Linklater talks about adult passion and why he, Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke know so much more now than they did nine years ago.

Published July 2, 2004 8:00PM (EDT)

In 1995, Richard Linklater made "Before Sunrise," a perfectly tuned picture in which Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke played Celine and Jesse, students (from France and the United States, respectively) whose paths cross on a train to Vienna. The two click almost immediately and spend a night wandering the city together, talking about themselves and their feelings about life and the world. The connection they form is one of the rarest sorts -- but, being young, they have no sense of how special it really is. They agree to meet again in Vienna in six months' time.

Until now, fans of "Before Sunrise" -- which did poorly at the box office but flourished on video and DVD -- didn't know if either Celine or Jesse, or both, kept that appointment. Some fans may not have wanted to know: Part of the movie's power lies in its open-endedness. Even so, it's probably safe to say that Linklater's new movie, "Before Sunset," which shows us where the 30-ish Celine and Jesse are today, answers just enough of our questions to satisfy us without draining the romantic mystery from Celine and Jesse's story.

Jesse is now a novelist (he has written an autobiographical novel about his one night with Celine) who feels trapped in an unsatisfying marriage. Celine is living in Paris and working for a humanitarian-aid organization, with a string of boyfriends behind her and her own disappointments.

During a recent trip to New York, Linklater sat down with Salon to discuss the kind of connection Jesse and Celine have, and about how our expectations of ourselves and other people change as we get older -- as well as the miraculousness of having made a sequel to a movie that was never a box-office hit to begin with. (The last half of the interview includes a few vague references to the film's end -- so skip it if you prefer to know absolutely nothing until you've seen the movie for yourself.)

One of the things that's so moving about Jesse and Celine -- particularly the younger Jesse and Celine -- is that they're connecting over things they feel passionately about. On the surface, that connection may seem like a simple thing, but it's really pretty complicated, particularly as a subject for a movie.

We -- Ethan, Julie and I -- have always tried to depict this kind of inexplicable deep connection with someone else. We're never saying there's only one person in the whole world that you can have that connection with. But it is rare. When you're young, you think those connections will keep happening. But often they don't. Your life goes on, and you're less open. Celine talks about it in "Before Sunset." She's settled for less, and it's OK -- it's just not that [same connection].

But then, sometimes when you have that connection, is that good? The chemistry is there, but does that always make for a long-term relationship? That can drive you crazy too -- it can be more volatile and ultimately more hurtful. It's one of the crazy aspects of relations in life.

At one point in "Before Sunset," Jesse, talking about the problems he has with his wife, laments, "Love has to be about more than commitment." I think that's a revolutionary statement. Particularly in this country, people are fixated on relationships as hard work. And while they do require some work, the prevailing notion is, "If you're having too good a time, you must be doing something wrong."

It seems like an offshoot of our workaholic culture: You have these commitments, and you've gotta stick by 'em and work. It's all work, work, work. And then you get into a relationship, and it's all work and no fun. You spend all your time fixing things -- just abiding by your commitment, and that sounds like a job in itself.

And then people who aren't married, who are in their 30s, 40s or 50s, get, "Oh, you're commitment-phobic! You have commitment issues." Someone told me that, because I'm not married. But I have three kids. I just had twins, six weeks ago! So people will say, "Oh, you're commitment-phobic." And I say, "Am I?" I'm really committed to things in my life. I'm committed to my kids, I'm committed to what I do -- I feel like I'm pretty committed in this world. Just because I'm not married doesn't mean I have some huge flaw.

And of course, technically, people are committed to someone until they're not -- and then they're committed to someone else. Many of us live serially -- we have serial marriages, we're serially monogamous.

At the end of "Before Sunrise," we see shots of the places where the characters have been -- the streets they walked, the cafes where they sat. And they seem so empty and lonely.

It's like instant nostalgia! Less than a day later.

Jacques Demy uses a similar device in another great romantic movie, "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg." Was that a conscious homage or a felicitous coincidence?

It wasn't conscious. People have sometimes brought up similarities with Antonioni. Montage is nothing new in cinema. And at the end of "Before Sunrise," it had everything to do with Celine and Jesse as ships passing in the night. They were ghosts in this town. They were just passing through. Life goes on. They were just inhabiting this space. But as Celine said earlier about the Seurat exhibit that they missed [in the movie, the couple walk past a poster for a Seurat exhibit that has just closed], people are transitory. We're just transitory. You feel that way when you're in Vienna, or Paris. It's like, Wow, we are just floating through.

That's what I like about the U.S. There's some sort of lame architecture that you know will be gone in 40 years. We as individuals take precedence over our buildings! And there [in Europe], you're just a speck in a long history of beautiful cities. That's one good American thing -- we promote the individual, I think, by our lack of history. You feel kind of small there. You're overwhelmed by the beauty -- it's so much bigger than you. You can't really feel that way about a strip mall.

"Before Sunset" takes place in Paris, which means that you and your cinematographer, Lee Daniel, are working with some of the most gorgeous settings in the world. But as beautiful as these backgrounds are, they're still all of a piece with the characters. Jesse and Celine's faces, and everything that's going on between them -- that's always front and center.

Lee and I have made several films together. We used to be roommates; we go back a long way. You just develop a shorthand with people. I've worked with a lot of people, but Lee shot the first one -- I thought he'd be the right guy to do this. You come in with a visual design based on the characters and the locations and stuff, and you just try to set a tone for what you want.

In terms of this movie's visual design, I wanted it to seem like an eloquent documentary. I wanted the visual style to be analogous to [Julie and Ethan's] acting styles: Intricate, hard to pull off, and yet unnoticeable, hopefully. These long, intricate Steadicam shots -- I wanted it to seem like a documentary, like we're just following these people, but I wanted the filmmaking to draw absolutely no attention to itself. And with the natural lighting -- to just feel as if that's how you'd see it if you were there. No crane shots, no 360-degree moves -- the most elaborate moves are the drift we do when she's on the boat, for instance. I remember walking on the boat, seeing that myself, thinking, That will be a poetic moment, with him looking at her.

"Before Sunset" is 80 minutes long, and it's structured in real time. When I first started watching it, the dialogue between Celine and Jesse seemed so natural, I wondered if some of it had been improvised. And I realized that the real-time structure of the picture would demand that all of the dialogue be meticulously planned out. But I totally fell for it; I was completely in the moment.

Obviously, that was the goal.

You wrote the script with Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke. There's no way you could have made it up as you went along.

I read that somewhere -- that we wrote the script together based on improvisations. Who projected that onto it? None of us has ever said that.

I've never done that. I don't think it's interesting. I think you could make movies like that -- I know some people do. But if you're improvising and you don't know what you're doing on the content side, I don't think your formal control can be the same. So I have never done that. Art is so much about structural timing.

That's why we spent weeks -- first a year writing, then weeks rehearsing and rewriting. If the actors are preoccupied with what they're going to say, they can't worry about that little gesture, or that look. If you're improvising, that's all you can be doing. It's hard to get a physicality going, too.

Julie and Ethan had to know it so well, it was frightening. And everything had to work in seven-minute, eight-minute chunks. To have the dialogue not play out like it was literature or theater, we had to [really think about how people talk]. In our natural dialogue, we're doing subtle segues to smooth edges. But what's really going on is people are trying to communicate their own thoughts, as much as they can or are interested in. It makes for a certain disjointedness. So if you really listen to the way people talk, that's what's there -- it's not flowing literature.

I understand the three of you wrote much of the script via e-mail?

The bulk of it was written via e-mail and faxes. We got together in a room for about three days and really pounded out the core of the movie, the outline. We'd been talking about it for years. So when we really sat down to do it, we had a very specific outline, with a beginning, a middle, an end. We knew what every scene was about. We had the emotional trajectory of each moment or scene -- what the characters are revealing, what they're saying, what they're not saying. All the way to the end -- the fadeout. That was in the outline. We knew the note we were going for at the very end, so it was all there.

And then we went our separate ways. We spent the next year working on other things. And that's when we started, really. We had it so well planned out, in an architectural way. Julie or Ethan could be working on this scene, I could be working on that scene -- just whoever had ideas or felt compelled to take a crack at something. And then we were always rewriting, and sending stuff around. A lot of it was just editing down.

When we had a script that was kind of getting there, we'd get in a room and work together again. It was fun -- it was pretty loose, and then it got really tight. But we all just -- we all had ideas I think we wanted to bring to the movie and to the characters specifically. But if an idea didn't fly with the other two, it didn't find its way in. So what's left is a distillation of thoughts, ideas, these bits that we thought fit into this world, this moment.

There was a lot of stuff I would have loved to have in this movie, but it never got traction with [Julie and Ethan]. I learned this a long time ago, if the actors don't get it, why do it? They can't fake it. Not in this movie. A lot of the time an actor's job is to take this kind of ridiculous-sounding stuff that almost doesn't make sense and make it human. That wouldn't work. If we did that for one second, the whole thing would have collapsed. So we just had to be very honest with one another about what we felt.

You've called "Before Sunrise" a "romance for realists." But I think "Before Sunset" is perhaps even more romantic. For one thing, the characters are more confident in some ways, and in other ways more vulnerable. Maybe that's true of the actors as well.

That's the fascinating thing we all had to confirm, nine years later. From your early 20s to your early 30s, you're still in the state of becoming the adult; you still haven't totally reached your limitations. You still sense an open-endedness and a future ahead of you. The great thing about getting a little older is you're a little more accepting of whatever paths you've taken. You're more likely to be settling into that. I think you're more comfortable in your own skin, maybe.

But below the surface of all that, if you're brave enough to admit the vulnerability underneath, and the disappointment and sadness and pain, as well as the joy and the beauty -- just kind of accepting life in all its honesty -- all that's there if you want to explore that.

It was important to depict two people who were aging but who were still the same people. It seems like we've seen this a million times: First, youthful romanticism and ideas, and then adult disappointments. But what about adult growth and adult passion? You take passionate, intelligent people, and you add age -- that's a nice formula. I wanted to show that Celine and Jesse are engaged in the world. They're intelligent. You sense Jesse is a good dad. They've taken on the adult world in their own, responsible way. I don't think they miss their youth; it's just that confronting each other, they're suddenly connected with what they felt then, and how that is or isn't possible now.

You go through life, but you get these constant reminders, something that takes you back. You have to think about what you wanted in life at a certain age and what you got.

Both Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy are now directors as well as actors; they're more experienced than they were 10 years ago. What was it like working with them this time around?

We had a great time 10 years ago. Obviously, we wouldn't have come back if we hadn't. But this time, it was transcendent. The thing we were afraid of -- could we capture magic again? Would we risk tempting the film gods by going back in? But we kind of looked at each other and knew that we wouldn't let one another down.

And now we're all lighter on our feet in a way. The humor in the movie is kind of our humor -- we're more open, more honest. We were just getting to know each other back then. Julie and Ethan are both just really honest artists -- they're not hiding anything, which is rare, I think. They're not looking for anything to hide behind.

This time around was even more intense -- it was harder work, but it was also more exhilarating. And it gave us hope: It was like, wow, that's our future. That can be life -- it can be even better. Everyone I know who's in their 30s or 40s, they always say, "I'm so much happier than I was in my 20s!" You just let go of so much stuff. If I really analyze it, I'm just so at peace on so many things that screwed me up back then. But like Jesse says in the movie, "My problems technically are deeper, but I'm more equipped to handle them."

What's next for Celine and Jesse? With "Before Sunset," the expectation of further sequels is floating out there.

Yeah. Because we've done a second movie, it necessitates the question -- it's on the table early. Currently, though, we don't have a story. It's too soon. We wouldn't do it until there was something that these two people had to go through or say. Who knows the future?

"Before Sunrise" wasn't particularly profitable in theaters. But after it was released on video, people started finding it, talking about it. It blossomed in the margins.

It's funny how films have their lives. You have to have faith that they'll eventually find their audience. I knew at the time we were making "Before Sunrise" that we were making a film that had nothing to do with that moment in time. It could have been made 30 years before, or 30 years after. It was made in the middle of this ironic Gen-X stuff, and it wasn't an ironic movie. It was very sincere; it didn't have pop culture in it. It didn't have anything to do with its pop-culture moment. And I think that's what people want to pay to see -- something that's "zeitgeist."

I wasn't so surprised that it didn't catch on. But then, I wasn't surprised when people started responding to it when they finally did see it. It's honest, in that way. So it bodes well for a shelf life.

Last time, it was all about what "Before Sunrise" wasn't. It wasn't "Four Weddings and a Funeral." It's boring, people talk, there's no action. This time, because of that precedent, it's all about what it is. No one is going, "Hey, there's no car chase!" And they know these people, Celine and Jesse, and this is what they expect from them. It's kind of wonderful.

"Before Sunset" was a film no one wanted to make. We couldn't get financing for it for the longest time. Over the years we had tried various ways and nothing happened. It's when we pared it down to nothing -- no money, a 15-day shoot -- that we could get the little bit of cash it took to make it. And we were grateful for it. Every day we'd look at each other and go, "I can't believe we're getting to do this! This is amazing!" So we were always very grateful and remain that way.

Yeah, we're lucky, so lucky. It feels like the movie has already done well -- not even in terms of money, but just that the people who financed it are just really happy with it. And we're happy with it. You can't let the lack of box office slow you down. And we do have that perverse pride -- "the lowest-grossing film to ever spawn a sequel" kind of thing. We're liking that.

By Stephanie Zacharek

Stephanie Zacharek is a senior writer for Salon Arts & Entertainment.

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