The One That Got Away, Pt. 2
The best fiction film of the year so far would seem to be Before Sunset, director Richard Linklater's poignant meditation on love and loss, a belated revisit to the bittersweet romance he began 10 years ago in Before Sunrise.
But, in fact, is it really fiction? The new film opens in Paris with Ethan Hawke's Jesse fielding questions from a tiny crowd at Shakespeare and Co.; he's there on a book tour for his novel about two early-20s travelers who meet on a train one afternoon and fall in love in Vienna before sunrise. An inquiring mind wants to know: "Is this story autobiographical?" The author--now unhappily married--blushes and replies, "Isn't everything autobiographical?"
Perhaps so. But few fictions are as deeply felt, as full of human insight and existential weight, as Before Sunset, a sequel whose very appearance on a movie screen is enough to give it, at least for Linklater fans, the quality of a minor miracle. (Never mind what it gives to fans of the newly single Hawke, whose performance would seem yet another autobiographical element.) Like Julie Delpy's Céline (or Kirsten Dunst's character in the summer's other romantic sequel, Spider-Man 2, which might more honestly be called I Love You, Mary Jane), the One That Got Away has returned.
The critic's first question for the filmmaker when we talk by phone is the obvious one.
City Pages: So--is this story autobiographical?
Richard Linklater: That's funny. [Long pause] Isn't everything autobiographical? [Long pause] I put that Q&A [scene] at the start of the film just to confront all these issues head-on: the difference between autobiography and fiction, the question of whether or not [the characters] got back together in Vienna as planned. Isn't it funny that in the movie Jesse says he won't let the cat out of the bag--and then just a couple of minutes later, we actually do tell you [that he and Céline didn't meet]? I know that Julie and Ethan and I all consider this film to be very personal, but not necessarily autobiographical. I actually don't think there's much difference between the two. I think if you can imagine something, then it's yours.
CP: I love the movie's romantic notion of art itself: that art can be a form of communication to another person--even if the artist can't be sure that the other person is listening.
Linklater: That's what both his book and [Céline's song for him] are: these distant communications when [the characters] can't communicate directly, when they're not in touch anymore. I think we do that always: When people aren't in our lives anymore, we still talk to them in one form or another.
CP: The sequel itself is a kind of reconnection--a rather amazing one given that the original affair wasn't exactly consummated at the box office. Speaking as a huge admirer of Before Sunrise, I would say that for this [new] film to exist at all--for us to get another chance with these characters, for them to get another chance with each other--is like magic, like a dream.
Linklater: It was scary to do, because had it sucked--or not been in the spirit of the first [film]--it would have affected the way you feel about [Before Sunrise].
CP: What things helped minimize that risk? A lot of preparation, right? A lot of rehearsals?
Linklater: The three of us really had to dig in. We had an intense few days together where we hammered out a detailed outline: what happens in each scene, what each scene is about. We talked a lot about the emotional trajectory of the film--that it would be a slow build, peaking in the car [scene]. We wouldn't have done [the sequel] if we hadn't felt compelled to check in with Jesse and Céline at this point in their lives. The characters have remained alive for us over the years--and we gave them that little scene together in Waking Life. That's when the three of us looked at each other and said, "Okay--we have to do this [sequel] now."
CP: The three of you are credited as co-screenwriters. How did the collaboration work exactly?
Linklater: We spent a period early on where we were constantly e-mailing ideas for scenes back and forth. We didn't waste any time: Everything was either about this scene or that scene. I would get lengthy passages from Julie and Ethan--scenes they had written, long monologues, or ideas for how things would develop. My job was just to collect all this material and put it in its place. I was rewriting the stuff, editing it, shaping it into a script. But the three of us made an agreement that we all had to [approve] the material philosophically--otherwise it wouldn't be in the movie.
CP: How did the three of you settle on the notion that Jesse would be the one who has been carrying the torch all these years--or at least that this is how it would initially appear?
Linklater: The conceit was always that he has written this book about the relationship--so his feelings are more overt. She's naturally going to be slow to reveal herself. She knows more about him: She has read the book, she knows his situation--that he's married and has a son. She's going to tread very lightly on the personal stuff. She'll take whatever he'll give, whatever he wants to say. Had things evolved a little differently--had he not said certain things--we might never have known how she felt. [The film] is like peeling away the layers of permission they'll give themselves to be honest, to admit things. By the time they're in the car together, all their defenses are down.
CP: By then, time is running out.
Linklater: It all comes out of that urgency, that feeling of being on borrowed time.
CP: It has been 10 years since you started making Before Sunrise. How do you measure your progress as an artist--and a person--since then?
Linklater: It's weird: You get older and, the way life unfolds, you can look back on a decade and it can feel at once like the blink of an eye and like an entire lifetime. It was fun to deal with that as subject matter: the notion of time and aging. As far as how it felt [to make Sunset], I think I've settled into a groove. You know how [Lawrence] Olivier said it takes 20 years to really become an actor? I think that's probably true of filmmaking, too--and I'm in my 20th year of actively trying to make movies. I trust my instincts now; I feel comfortable. Some directors like these war analogies for filmmaking: They try to turn it into a big battle, into some huge, brutal undertaking. I'm like, Fuck that, man--it's just what we do for a living. It's not that difficult. I mean, filmmaking is "rough" compared to what--being a soldier in Iraq? It's a privileged life--intense, yeah, but fulfilling.
CP: Like a lot of your films, Before Sunset is chiefly about talking. But it's also very much a study of body language, starting in the moments when the characters can't allow themselves to say how they really feel. It couldn't have been natural for the actors, because in real life they're very close friends, but for the movie they have to perform this physical discomfort with being in the other's company.
Linklater: Their little gestures, the subtle communications between them--all that was rehearsed. And yet, for Julie and Ethan, these characters are very familiar--like themselves in a parallel universe.
CP: Their expression through movement rather than words becomes more and more like a dance as the film progresses--climaxing in the very last shot.
Linklater: With that last image, I wanted to capture a moment of pure, unencumbered bliss.
CP: It's really lovely. And well earned.
Linklater: Because it's not easily earned. We always talk about [Before Sunset] as being a "romance for realists"--for people who don't buy all that fairy-tale crap. As a filmmaker, if you try to break the mold of the traditional romantic comedy, you're really stepping outside of Hollywood. Romantic comedy is built on these classic constructs that are totally fake--and yet the Cinderella thing does satisfy something in all of us. The thing is, if you're the sort of person who thinks a lot about love and relationships--if you don't necessarily believe that, say, Pretty Woman is a viable philosophy of romance--then you want a movie to go a little deeper.
CP: The other obvious question: Will there be a third film with these characters?
Linklater: Maybe. Julie says that if there's going to be a sex scene in the next one, we'd better hurry.
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