by Amy Boutell
Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke, and Richard Linklater at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival
After a whirlwind ten days watching several films a day, attending panels with Oscar-nominees, and developing infatuations during celebrity tributes—I confess a two-hour interview with Robert Redford nearly sent me to the blue velvet fainting couch in the lobby of the Arlington—I forced myself to get dressed up one more time, to put on the black 1930s evening jacket my great-grandmother had worn to the Chicago World’s Fair. Admittedly, I was fashioning myself less for Ethan Hawke than for Julie Delpy, the luminous, brilliant, French feminist goddess my friends and I have been admiring since the 1990s.
The 29th Annual Santa Barbara International Film Festival was about to conclude with an intimate, process-oriented discussion of Before Midnight. After a screening of the movie, a panel discussion featuring Oscar-nominated writing team, Delpy, Hawke, and director Richard Linklater, promised just the sort of craft conversation for which the Santa Barbara festival has become known.
The timing of the festival is strategic, just two weeks before Academy Award presentations. The Before Midnight evening concluded ten days of celebrity events. Only days prior a siren song of shrieking could be heard from blocks away during Leonardo DiCaprio’s stint on the red carpet, one that featured a made-for TMZ moment when DiCaprio encountered one of this more notorious fans, the Ukrainian crotch-nuzzler. (DiCaprio emerged unscathed, I can report. I sat only four seats away from him later and scrutinized his every hair follicle.)
So why was no one yelling out to Julie Delpy, a vision in a black dress, décolletage and sleeves lined with beads, sparkly heels, so gorgeous with her translucent skin and long wavy hair. Or for Ethan Hawke, who had a respectable stint as a heartthrob too, if he never quite reached DiCaprio’s stature. If Doc Martens were back in style, wasn’t it possible that all these nineties enthusiasts might carry retro crushes on this still-charmingly disheveled icon of the era? (One has to admire how Hawke arrives in flannel pajamas to the set of Ten Thousand Saints in New York.)
When Hawke, Delpy, and Linklater appeared on stage (seated on simple chairs, no plush white leather seats and Moet chalices of champagne for the speakers as there had been for previous events) to begin an illuminating if all-too-brief discussion, Hawke joked, “Wait to see how long it takes Julie to eviscerate me.” Within moments Hawke and Delpy were sparring like Jesse and Celine, finishing each other’s sentences, blurring the lines between writer, actor, and character, which is precisely what Linklater intends.
One cannot discuss the Before Midnight script without precise attention to the entire Before Sunrise trilogy. Audiences first encountered Jesse and Celine in 1995 as young inter-railers, flirting and jousting their way through Vienna. In 2004’s Before Sunset, they are recast as pensive thirty-somethings in Paris, searching for more, determined to find it in one another.
Another nine years pass and we meet Jesse and Celine in middle age, still searching, this time on a family holiday with their twin daughters in Greece. What they seek is as complicated as it is elusive. Their world is messy yet they remain resilient and determined to stay together.
In interviews Delpy defines the first two films as having a similar dynamic. They’re about connecting and reconnecting. Before Midnight is different, she says, because it takes on the deeper problems that come from being connected. Hawke is known to take a more charitable view of their characters. “The first film is about what could be. The second is about what should have been.” The third, he explains, “is about what is. What happens when you get what you want?”
Critics continually note that Jesse and Celine’s voluble dialogue provides audiences one of the most lush and truthful portraits of a relationship ever seen on camera.
This is all the result of an intensive writing collaboration. According to Hawke, “the most difficult [scene] as a writing team would obviously be the fight,” which involved “a tremendous amount of work and backstory.”
“The dream of that scene for us was that it’s not a fight scene, you know, it’s really a love scene, it starts as a love scene, and it keeps wanting to be a love scene, and it keeps trying to be a love scene, and it keeps tripping on itself. We really were hoping to create layers and layers, the way a fight, if you really are communicating with someone, it gets deeper and deeper.”
The reason this scene “keeps tripping on itself,” as Hawke noted, can be found in Delpy’s observation that Jesse and Celine “have different rhythms… He’s giving more things away sooner, and she’s giving it away all toward the end.”
“To me, the fight scene is really like music,” Delpy explained. “It’s like a little touch more aggressive, then emotional, then soft again, then aggressive again, kind of like music; if you have no variation, it’s completely flat.”
“If you try to force drama on these movies,” Hawke observed, “you reveal the fact that there’s no plot. It only works if it seems as close to real life as possible. That’s the edge we’re walking.”
In Before Midnight Jesse and Celine begin to accept their difficulties as passion wanes and their relationship requires ongoing, exhausting negotiation. “So we give ourselves a big canvas to explore it on,” Linklater said. “We have to know [these lives] so well to seem so loose,” he said. The creative process here includes not only long writing sessions, but extensive rehearsals before shooting begins, rehearsals Delpy has famously compared to torture.
“Part of the methodology of this — and I have worked like this, naturally, [as] in my film Dazed and Confused — is that they add to it. I knew that for Before Sunrise to work, I needed two very creative actors who would give themselves to [this process] completely.”
Linklater recalled the magic that took place during Delpy and Hawke’s audition the first time they met in an Upper West Side casting room. At that point the script for Before Sunset was set in San Antonio. He rewrote the story to take place in Vienna after attending the Vienna Film Festival. The change was inspired by the simple fact that he had a good time there and wanted to go back. It’s difficult now, of course, to imagine these characters could have met anywhere else.
“There’s this thing that I think Julie and I both feel that Rick is going after,” Hawke said, “which is a world that is so real that the camera is not manipulating it. The movie is not made in the editing room, it’s made on the day that we’re filming it, and that is exhilarating.”
Delpy, who is also an accomplished director, went on to discuss the challenge of giving a rhythm to each scene. “The dinner and the fight … the scenes where we’re walking and talking, we know that the rhythm we have to give it is in the writing and in the acting and in the directing.” The ideal becomes a seamless of cohesion of three.
Recently The Guardian called the Before Sunset trilogy “a palate-cleansing antidote to the more brash and noisy Oscar contenders.” Hollywood writers have gone on record to say that the recent Delpy-Hawke-Linklater Academy Award nomination is a victory not just for the trio but for collaborative script writing.
As the program concluded I decided to stop by the festival after-party. I imagined mingling with Jesse and Celine, characters that have been with me since the 1990s, inviting me to measure my life against theirs. Neither Delpy nor Hawke could be found at the awkward adult prom-like soiree, so I walked home in a Before Sunrise trilogy reverie, staving off Sunday night, end-of-film-fest, post-exhilaration blues by reflecting on my own chance romantic encounters.
Some might have reverberated for months or years, as the first film captures. Then there is the seductive experience of re-uniting with an old love as explored in the second film. Finally my imagination time-traveled forward to a moment when, like Jesse and Celine at the end of Before Midnight, I work through those musical layers of a fight with a future love. My imagination has cast Robert Redford.
Amy Boutell’s short stories have been published in Post Road, New Letters, Nimrod, and Other Voices. She has an MFA from the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas and her work has received recognition from the Norman Mailer Writers Colony, the Ragdale Foundation, and Summer Literary Seminars. She is currently revising her first novel, The Invention of Violet, which was a finalist for the 2012 Pirate’s Alley/Faulkner Society Novel-in-Progress Competition. She lives in Santa Barbara and works as a Writing Instructor at UCSB’s CLAS Writing Lab.