The Texan director tells why he added another chapter to his much-loved series on the lives of a French-American couple.
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12 Jun 2013 - 12:54 PM  UPDATED 12 Jun 2013 - 12:54 PM

Since the 2004 release of Before Sunset, Richard Linklater, Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy were invariably asked, “What happened to Celine and Jessie? When will we see the next movie?”

The essence of you probably doesn't change and that’s really one of the concerns of the movie

It's not just journalists and critics who are wondering. Movie lovers all around the globe are so invested in the story that began with 1995's Before Sunrise that loved up couples have even made marriage proposals after seeing the movies. Something had to happen. Probably, The Notebook aside, there's no bigger date flick to come along in the past few decades.

I had been in Vienna on the Before Sunrise set, when a journalist friend who was doing the production notes told me of the then little-known Julie Delpy: “She's outrageous. She swears like a trooper, she's great.”

Ethan Hawke, a more laid-back New Yorker and a decidedly cool dude, seemed like the other side of the personality spectrum to Delpy's highly-strung Parisian. But clearly, as in real life, opposites attracted on this movie and over the years as the actors pursued other projects and real-life romances, I keenly followed their other projects. Both would become directors themselves and both would have families. They would collaborate with their partners, Hawke with his now ex, Uma Thurman (on his cerebral directing effort, 2001's Chelsea Walls), and Delpy with her German composer partner Marc Streitenfeld on projects including her latest movie 2 Days in New York.

They both kept very busy, as did their director Richard Linklater. Inevitably, after another nine years they were ready to make a more adult instalment, Before Midnight, reflecting their lives now. Unlike so many sequels, incredibly these films only get better and better. And while they may be effortless to watch, partly because of their organic naturalistic creation, more work goes into them than we might imagine.

Richard Linklater, a laidback 52-year-old Texan, gives a little insight into the process – though not too much. He says he wants his new movie to come as a surprise to audiences.

Why do you like these two actors and characters so much? Are they like your family in some way?

Yeah, I think at this point Julie [now 43] and Ethan [now 42] and I have our own long-term relationship in the manner of Jessie and Celine. We have this parallel life with them and it's just like any long term relationship. You have to give each other a lot of slack and there has to be a foundation of fundamental love for it to go on, acceptance maybe. We all accept each other to a certain degree although we probably irritate each other in certain ways.

Have you felt the pressure to keep the story going?

I didn't at all on the first two films. The only pressure was on ourselves, because we had a special experience that first time in Vienna so it was very scary to do the second one. We didn't know if we were making a mistake there or not, but we were just compelled to do it. We created these characters, Jessie and Celine, they seemed to be living this parallel life with us but the fact that we did a second film and the way it ended, that ending kind of begs the question. So the three of us, everywhere we've gone in the last nine years it's always that last question on the interview. “Oh, one more, do you think Jessie and Celine will ever get together?” It's a question that we all lived with. No one wanted the second film or asked about it really. But this one they wanted.

So will there be a fourth film?

The honest answer right now is that we are probably five or six years away from even having a good idea. That's the way it seemed to have worked with the last two films because we have to get older, we have to live a little more and figure out what's happening in our lives. Especially Ethan and Julie. I am older than them so I look back a bit on this particular age. But they have to live it and that's always been the trigger for another episode. Maybe in nine years there will be one at age 50 for them, but maybe not. You never know how life goes.

This bickering thing that tends to happen in marriages and long-term relationships is a big part of this film. It seems to keep the couple going. Do you think that's something that is inevitable?

I think that's healthy, if you can have some fun with it. In a relationship you make a choice about the things you are going to be at odds about. If you can't make fun of it and make each other laugh or see the bigger absurdity of what you are trying to do by even having a relationship, you probably are not going to make it.

I sense a bit of cynicism.

Well, that's how I feel about life, you know, you can see it in these movies. When they're 23 you can see it in their eyes that there are some answers on the horizon, that they are going to find out something. Then at 30 the world has closed in, they are both working and their lives have become busy. They are still the same people fundamentally. And then by 40 they are sort of holding on, they are in it and they'd better have a sense of humour about it because at some point after bumbling through this life, they realise it's the best they're going to do, no matter how hard they try.

They talk a lot in all three movies. How much did you want the visual style to differ from film to film?

With every story you tell there is a way to tell it that you think best communicates it to the audience visually and tonally. So the way this film unfolded is the way I felt was best to take it. There just happen to be these long takes and this long car ride and I like the idea of the audience sitting with both of them, not me saying, “Close up here,” “Close up there,” “That line is important and that isn't.” Nah, I just let it flow. If you are invested in these characters – and it takes for granted that anyone watching this movie may have seen one of the previous two films, although it's not necessary by any means – you are getting reoriented to what is happening in their lives. I like the idea that you can just sit there and look wherever you want to and hang out with both of them.

How did Greece come up as a location?

I visited there, I knew some people and I was going to go to several countries but I found a couple key locations that I thought would be very difficult to find elsewhere. The house that the writer lives in where they are spending their summer was a crucial location in Kardamyli in the Western Mani region. It was owned by the British writer, Patrick Leigh Fermor, a notorious character, a kind of Greek war hero during the Second World War, who had passed away a year earlier. It was perfect for the movie.

Greece is a very romantic place.

It is. The islands certainly are, but we were in a region that is a little less touristic, a little less used for movies. It's not the Mamma Mia! kind of thing. But Greece is Greece; it's kind of wonderful.

In the film you show how the characters have matured and changed – or not. Did it force you to think about how have you changed yourself?

That's the eternal question, isn't it? (Broad smile) I am always thinking about that. I think inside we all think we have changed quite a bit from year to year, from day to day. We have read so many books, we have seen so many more movies, life has happened and we have taken in so much more. But on a superficial evaluation of ourselves, is it insulting when someone you haven't seen in 20 years says “Oh, you're just the same.” No, I am not. I am wiser, and deeper and richer. But no, we are all the same.

The essence of you probably doesn't change and that's really one of the concerns of the movie. Have Celine and Jessie changed? They are still themselves; they seem very connected to the same person they were at 23 and yet life has this way of attaching things to them, whether it's children or just life experience and responsibility certainly. It's a very different life at 23 where you could just get off a train with no one waiting on you back home, no schedule. When we meet them the second time they are very scheduled. He has a plane to catch, he is at work and she is grounded in the city she lives in. So you see the reality closing in even though it's still this romantic encounter. By the time of the third film they are in the real world, we see their social interactions and they are much more grounded.

Could the trilogy have been another story in another place without kids?

For Jessie and Celine, it could have been anything, but for the three of us, we wanted to represent our experience through these characters. It was some kind of reflection of our own lives. Like when we were doing the first film in '94 I had a daughter who was turning one around that time. Now she is in college and with Ethan and Julie, between us all we have eight children. We have all been through a lot in 18 years.

How do you write together?

At our best, we are in the room together, throwing out ideas. I can't tell you how fun it is. We are just three old friends bullshitting and telling sex jokes and horrible stories and digressions, talking about art, but it's always kind of focused on the characters. It's not laborious but it's hard work; we do that for weeks and weeks and weeks. We also write individually and send each other stuff but a lot of it is in the room.

Before Sunrise, Before Sunset and Before Midnight all screen at the 2013 Sydney Film Festival. Before Midnight is released nationally in cinemas July 18. Click here for our full coverage the festival.