WHEN Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy and director Richard Linklater hooked up for Before Sunrise (1995), little did they realise their unassuming tale of an American traveller and a French student who meet on a train, and then spend an impromptu evening together in Vienna, talking, walking and falling in love, would be the start of a project that could well continue for as long as they are still able to work and raise funds for the movies.
A chatty romantic drama that appealed to the head as much as to the heart, Before Sunrise struck a chord with Generation Xers and critics, but wasn’t a huge box-office success. Even so, it produced a sequel, Before Sunset, that finally answered the question left hanging at the end of the first film: did the young lovers keep their promise and meet at the same station six months later?
A nine-year wait to find out meant that Before Sunset was one of the hottest tickets at the Berlin Film Festival in 2004. And just as time had moved on for the audience, so had it for the characters, too. “We’d planned to do a movie a few years after we finished the first film, set six months later, because we still looked the same,” recalls Linklater. “But then as the years went by it didn’t make sense to make a movie six months later. So then we decided, OK, they meet nine years later.”
That was the first time Hawke and Delpy received a writing credit. They’d contributed to Before Sunrise. “The script was written [by Linklater and Kim Krizan, who’d appeared in his debut feature, Slacker], an original script, and then we got together a month before the shoot and re-wrote the dialogue, even entire scenes,” says Delpy – but union rules prohibited Linklater from listing them as co-authors. Still, the film had been an invaluable experience for both actors.
“It gave me confidence as a writer,” says Hawke, who has since published two novels, “because Rick [Linklater] has this wonderful quality, which is that he sees the best in others. He’s not overly critical.”
For Delpy, it was just the boost she needed. “I had written a screenplay before Before Sunrise that I gave to a famous writer to read, and he said, ‘You’re very pretty. Please don’t write.’ Which was really nice. And I remember after Before Sunrise I was like, ‘Oh, I can write these things that people really like.’”
Their joint effort on Before Sunset earned an Oscar nomination, but again the film didn’t exactly wear out cinema tills. Nevertheless, a third instalment, Before Midnight, is about to be released, and proves that far from outstaying their welcome, Jesse and Celine – not to mention Hawke and Delpy themselves – are becoming more interesting with age. However, Linklater is under no illusion that this means Before Midnight is about to storm the multiplexes. Most people watch the films on DVD – if they watch them at all – he says.
“When we did the second one we said we’re the least successful film to spawn a sequel. Now we say we’re the lowest-grossing film to ever spawn a franchise,” he laughs. “It’s a little indie thing, a cult, and I’m used to it being a cult. And the United States, well, middle America, probably doesn’t know anything about anything. So I’ve geared my mind to that when I encounter people from there in my life, I have to expect them never to have seen one film.”
Anyone who has been following the “accidental trilogy”, as Linklater calls it, will know that when we left Celine and Jesse at the end of Before Sunset, they were alone in her Paris apartment and he was on the brink of deciding whether to miss his flight back to America and his (apparently) unhappy marriage.
“We decided to end it before it gets to the romantic action,” says Delpy. “The ending is kind of like in between a breath. That’s what it’s supposed to be.”
Fast forward another nine years and they’re now an established (unmarried) couple in their 40s, with twin girls, at the end of a family holiday in Greece. This time the romance of the first two films is replaced by the kind of clear-eyed reality that comes with time and age.
They have got what they wanted, but do they still want it? Have the sacrifices – especially Celine’s – been worth it? When Jesse raises the idea of moving the family from Paris to Chicago to be closer to his son from his failed marriage, buried resentments surface, leading to an explosive argument that could either break the relationship or strengthen it.
The chemistry between Hawke and Delpy is so convincing, the acting and dialogue (scripted, not improvised) so naturalistic, that you feel like you’re watching a real couple in meltdown. “We know each other very well, so we can put that on screen,” says Hawke. “For instance, I tease her about blow jobs [in that scene] and the next thing I am doing is grabbing her tits and just mauling. If that was an actress I’d just met, I would never have done that. But we’ve known each other for 20 years. We’re friends. We know each other’s kids.”
He admits, though, that this made the situation feel “a little weird”. Delpy says: “I can’t even look at it. And it’s funny, because it’s never weirded me out to look at myself having sex with Daniel Brühl [in 2 Days in Paris] or whatever.”
For all the pain Jesse and Celine put each other through, there is nevertheless something positive about Before Midnight. The couple fight, they abuse each other, they come close to calling it a day, but while they are arguing they are communicating – a central factor in all three films – and where there is communication there is hope.
Linklater agrees: “When we stay on Jesse’s face at the end, it’s just one of those moments of, ‘OK, is this it or do I reload? What are we doing here?’ To me, it’s optimistic because they do have the ability to work through. If you really care, and if it matters to you, you can make it work.
“It’s kind of a metaphor for our own working relationship on this, too,” he continues. “Julie and Ethan and I now have our own long-term relationship that has it’s own little moments where you take a breath and go, ‘OK can we do this? Is it worth it?’ The films seem effortless, and I’m glad people think that, but there’s some really dark nights where we’re like, ‘Wow, do we fold up and go home?’”
Will Before Midnight be the last we see of Jesse and Celine? Probably not. Hawke, 42, points out that they could do another trilogy, with the same increments of time in between, and they’d still be younger than the actors in Amour at the end.
“I have almost a decade on Ethan and Julie, so I’m looking back a little bit,” says Linklater. “And that’s always been an interesting dynamic to me, particularly on Before Sunrise. I was in my early 30s and they were 23, so I was really thinking back to that early 20s that I remembered, and they were really living it. So I’m always catching them in their moment. And that’s how actors should be: this is where I’m at.”
Where they will be at next is anyone’s guess. The trio themselves have no idea. As with Before Sunset and Before Midnight, Jesse and Celine will tell them when they have something new they want to talk about.
• Before Midnight is in cinemas from 21 June.