In this wearying age of relentless irony and challenge-free media, another contemplative, loquacious, and bittersweet outing with Ethan Hawke’s Jesse and Julie Delpy’s Celine, the passionate pair who first pondered life and romance in 1995’s Before Sunrise, then rendezvoused with greater verve in 2004’s Before Sunset, feels especially heaven-sent. Painstakingly scripted by Hawke, Delpy, and director Richard Linklater, Before Midnight continues what’s become a grand and beloved indie tradition, wherein every nine years these three likeminded talents reteam to revisit the central couple, whose tireless zest for life, conversation, and each other is matched only by the strengths of their individual personalities. The latest chapter, which unfolds in the southern Peloponnese (Before Sunrise was set in Vienna and Before Sunset took place in Paris), catches up with Jesse and Celine amid a comparatively unromantic period, in which children have taken top priority and resentments and discontent are piling up. It’s an often startling reflection of the natural order of actual relationships, and it’s presented in a way that’s by turns theatrical and bracingly real.
Delpy likens the work to theater “in the wild,” and the result of what’s reportedly a deeply cerebral scripting process is a glorious respite from the modern glut of popular, culturally referential works, which seem to lack the courage to actually stare life in the face. And yet, for all their careful gestation, these enduringly romantic films remain experimental in nature, essentially serving as fictional kindred spirits of the Up series. Will we meet Jesse and Celine again in just shy of a decade, when they’re nearing 50? According to Delpy and Linklater, both of whom I recently spoke with about the film, it’s a mystery even to them. In addition to discussing on-screen fights, fanbase pressures, and those stunning foreign settings, both actor and director explain that this saga has ebbed, flowed, and evolved with spontaneity, like life itself.
In my experience, when people talk about these films, a lot of them say that they think of Julie and Ethan as an actual couple, either because it enhances their appreciations of Jesse and Celine’s romance, or because the characters’ connection is so believable. How would each of you describe the real-life bond?
Julie Delpy: Well, we’re definitely not sexually active with each other. That’s for sure. [laughs] We’re far from a couple. I’m friends with Ethan’s wife and the father of my son loves Ethan; it’s all very friendly. But we have a wonderful creative connection, which we’ve had since the first film. We don’t hang out that much, but I would say he’s a good friend. We get together and we write these films with Richard, and it’s a different kind of thing. It’s not romance, it’s creativity—another way to transcend death.
Richard Linklater: They’re comrades, Julie and Ethan. Artistic, creative partners. I’d say they’re a comic duo. They do have a lot of fun together, and I think a lot of stars can’t say that. They work together and they go their separate ways. But if we’re all at a dinner, we like to sit near each other, even if we’ve been working together all day. So what does that tell you? All three of us really amuse one another; we care about each other. But there was never anything real between them. If anything, we like to joke about that stuff, and about our own relationships we’ve had over the years.
Before Midnight sees Jesse and Celine in a very different place in their lives. The thrill is gone, there are children involved, grown-up life has set in. How did your own life experiences inform this new chapter? Julie, I know you’ve entered a long-term relationship and had a child since the last film.
Delpy: Yeah, that was a big transition. The first film was about connection and love at first sight, and the second film was about reconnecting. And those are two very romantic concepts. The third film shows a very different dynamic, and that was a real challenge: to find the romance and the excitement. The writing part of that was very tedious and precise, like sewing lace. It was always on a razor’s edge. As for my own experiences, my idea of motherhood is very different from Celine’s, and my situation is very different from Celine’s, but I don’t think I could have written those specific things about motherhood without knowing what it’s like to be a mother. I would have had to do a little more…research. [laughs]
Linklater: I think, for all of us, our life experiences pour into all of these films. These are ultimately not autobiographical films, but they are very personal. So we all bring everything from our own lives fully into this, good and bad. We’ve all been through [things] over the years, so a lot of that finds its way into the characters and their life situations. It would be easy to take any bit from the movie and say, “Okay, well the germ of that came from here.” But, usually, by the time something makes it into the movie, it’s been highly vented through the three of us, and rewritten and polished. You’ve got to be tough in that phase. It’s a very ego-less process, and sometimes you’re contributing something you don’t realize you’re contributing. Like, I’ll tell Ethan about a dream I had where I was watching a movie, and he’ll transpose that into dialogue about a dream Jesse had where he was reading a book. Everything that’s going on in our lives can potentially find its way in. It’s a crazy, fun process.
So, the spontaneity of the writing process, does that transfer onto the set when the cameras are rolling? Is there any improv involved?
Linklater: No. And that’s just how I work. I don’t know how to improv something and make it work. I think all my films are pretty meticulously constructed. They’re not made to feel that way; they’re made to feel very loose. But, actually, it’s very, very tight to start with. It has to be in order for it to feel that loose. I really don’t know how you can improv and tell the exact story you’re trying to tell. It can work for emotions, but we’re so dialogue-driven, and that has to be intricately plotted and mapped out for us to tell our story.
Delpy: Yeah, when we’re shooting there are no changes. The screenplay is locked. Save for some minute changes, nothing changes. We write the dialogue, and Ethan and I spend two weeks rehearsing, rehearsing, rehearsing—every moment for the day and night usually. And then we shoot. But there’s nothing improvised. It’s all very scripted and very tightly planned, and yet the process is designed so it feels natural. It’s basically a play in the wild. It’s actually a very challenging type of movie to make.