Just one day after Before Midnight wrapped in 2012, the question was already being posed to the two men and one woman who turned a chance EuroRail train encounter into one of the most unlikely movie trilogies of modern times. “So do you guys think that nine years from now, there will be another Celine and Jesse movie?” a recuperating Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke, and director Richard Linklater are asked.
The discussion is part of After Before, a new documentary from Athina Rachel Tsangari that is part of the Criterion Collection’s packed new Before Trilogy set, out Feb. 28. Before Sunrise, which documented one romantic stroll through Vienna between a thoughtful American (Hawke’s Jesse) and an idealistic French woman (Delpy’s Celine), stimulated cinephile’s passions, if not box office grosses. The 1995 film ended with the couple parting ways at the train station, promising each other that they would reunite there in six months. But did they? Fans had to wait until Before Sunset, the 2004 Oscar-nominated sequel that answered the question during a second encounter in Paris but culminated in an even more tantalizing cliffhanger — does Jesse miss his plane and stay with Celine in Paris? Of course he did, but staying together is never as easy as the first glorious pangs of love, a subject that became the focus of Before Midnight, the gorgeous Greek-set 2013 threequel that revisited Celine and Jesse in the post post-honeymoon period of their relationship.
The new Criterion set is a sumptuous celebration of the Before films, with extras aplenty, but its existence represents a depressing possibility — that the romance is over. Not necessarily. Linklater, who just completed filming Amazon’s Last Flag Flying — starring Steve Carell, Laurence Fishburne and Bryan Cranston — and is in pre-production on Where’d You Go, Bernadette with Cate Blanchett, says he still can imagine another chapter for Celine and Jesse. Scroll down to watch an exclusive clip from one of the Criterion docs, which captures the sibling-like intimacy of the three artists, and then read an interview with Linklater, who provides hope for anyone who feared that the trilogy’s magic had finally expired at Midnight.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: I’ll start with the biggest question — or the second biggest question. Do you feel responsible for the thousands of men — both adorable and creepy — who have clumsily tried to turn their own innocent conversation with a pretty girl on a train or a plane into something more because they were inspired by Jesse’s courage?
RICHARD LINKLATER: [Laughs] You know, I’ve heard from so many people over the years, male and female: “Oh, I met someone [that way].” It’s always the best people who are the most courteous and shy and don’t make the move. So if [the movie] gives a little bump to any guy to take that brave little leap and risk a little rejection, I think that’s a good thing. Because those are the kinds of guys that women should spend more time with.
The first film wouldn’t have worked and there would’ve been a second or a third without the chemistry between Julie and Ethan. You’re very good at casting all your movies, but how and when did you know that Ethan and Julie had something that was magic?
The first time I saw them together in the room. It was a call-back in New York, and I just saw the way they looked at each other. And they’re both very verbal. They got that verbal wit, and even in the context of the script, they riffed and they added stuff. And they had a natural chemistry; they looked great together. So I was like, “Oh, wow, this could work,” because it was such a dangerous film to begin with. It was so hard to pull off. I remember Ethan — who was one of the biggest stars after Reality Bites and the go-to guy of that age range — being intrigued by this but also telling me he thought it could very well not work. But he was intrigued with that challenge, I guess. I always think that says so much about Ethan, that he would take a film that he thought had a good chance of not working at all and for a lot less money than he was being offered. The whole thing was pretty precarious. Until we were actually shooting, it was always like, “God, how are we going to make this work? Can a film with two people just talking be a movie?”
So it was always Ethan and Julie, and it was never a situation where some other actor made a foolish mistake and turned down one of the roles?
Nah, I don’t think it came down to that. We were a film that was barely financed. Fortunately, Castle Rock got behind it, and we did it for 2-point-something million. But I remember meeting some stars early on, and they would read it and go, “Is this film set up? Is it happening?” I was like, “Yeah I think we’re going to make it.” At that time, I think every actor in the industry of that age range sort of came in — not necessarily guys, but definitely the young women. In the early stages, I was meeting European male and female [actors] — Jesse could’ve been European and Celine could’ve been American. I was thinking that could work.
The legend goes that you had an experience like Jesse’s with a girl in Philadelphia and then I saw that another early version was set on a train ride to San Antonio. Obviously, that changed, but do you think it’s important or somehow thematic that all three films ended up being set in Europe?
Yeah, I used to drive the train coming in from the west and it would stop in San Antonio and then continue to Austin. It’s one of the better cities in Texas just to walk around in. So I think that was a down-and-dirty version, and that would’ve been a European view of that city. So it kind of switched and became an American view of the European travel experience. It could’ve gone either way. But it was based on an experience of mine in ’89. But in early ’90, I kind of left the country for the first time with my first film. I was at the Berlin Film Festival, and I was walking around Berlin, and that’s where I really started thinking of this movie. In fact, it was an early thought to set it in Berlin. But then I ended up having such a good time at the Vienna Film Festival with Dazed and Confused and really liking all the people I met there. And the local government was really cool; they kind of wanted us there. It all kind of worked out the way it should.
Do you feel like these films get easier to make, because you knew the characters’ voices, or actually harder, because you had to delve deeper into their marrow to find the next suitable story?
I think they got progressively harder. Just the stories we were biting off. I mean, the first one’s more traditional, in that it’s one night basically in their lives. It’s structured a little more typically. Each subsequent film has kind of thrown up a hurdle that was almost impossible to clear or felt like painted in a corner. Making the second film a real-time movie kind of meant you couldn’t cut anything out. So the whole film had to work like a play. I couldn’t just drop a scene. It’s so interconnected. So that was difficult, and our shooting schedules got shorter. The first one we shot in about 25 days. The second one was like in 15 days. And the third one, while not real-time exactly, I think the degree of difficulty there was unlike the first two. When you think of a love story or a relationship movie, the sweet spots are them meeting. Most great romances get to the beginning of the actual relationship. Well, with Before Midnight, what we bite off is the actual relationship — nine years in, where are they at? People don’t really make movies about that. [Laughs] It was just a thematic challenge that was really, really draining. The film doesn’t look like it but I think it’s the toughest film I ever did.
From what I understand, you went to Greece without a script and basically locked yourself in a room with Ethan and Julie for 10 weeks, until you had something that was polished.
Exactly. That was just the only way it was going to work. We had to be together. I mean, Ethan and I worked on it alone a little bit before that, but it was getting in the room with the three of us, grinding it out — there’s something about midlife that made that seem like an apt metaphor.
Backing up a little to the second film, one of the things that everyone who loves that movie really latches on to is the end scene, with Julie singing the Nina Simone song and the glances she exchanges with Ethan. How did you end up with that ending, with that song, with that moment?
People see that and they want to think, “Oh, that just happened or something.” No, that was in our outline. I’m a big believer in structure, and we had that endpoint. We were working towards that the whole time. But in a rehearsal, Julie was talking about seeing Nina Simone in concert. And she sort of described what you see in that scene. She was just doing it, and I looked over at Ethan and I go — because she was so beautiful — I said, “That would make me fall in love all over again!” That would seal the deal, seeing her saunter. And I said, “That’s the end of the movie.” And Julie didn’t want to do it! She was so self-conscious. She was like, “Oh no, I can’t do it.” But now that everyone in the world has come around and said how much they like the ending, Julie says it was all her idea. [Laughs] But I had to twist her arm. But Ethan and I learned a long time ago, if there’s something you like about the movie or if it was a good idea, it was Julie’s idea.
Was there also arm-twisting involved in getting the rights to that song, because I know that the Nina Simone estate is very—
Yes, yes. That one was tricky. My music supervisor Randy Poster finally pulled a rabbit out of a hat. Because we really wanted that song. That one got down to the wire.
I think Ethan tells the story of you smiling on the set of Sunset and saying, “I’m just so happy to see them.” Them being Jesse and Celine.
It’s like meeting old friends. To see them and to be back with them and to know how much life has gone on, it’s always kind of a rush. To have the front-row seat to Jesse and Celine, kicking it back, it was very fun.
The three of you have grown up together through these films. How have Ethan and Julie evolved as actors from the first film to the third?
Yeah, I just think any artist who’s pushing themselves, who cares, who hasn’t given up, in any medium, you’re just better. It’s subtle. In a way, you’re more relaxed with your talent. You’re more in charge with your talent. You’re more confident. Some go the other way: some quit trying and the proverbial phoning-it-in kind of thing. But if you’re working with artists, people who give a s—, it’s a wonderful thing. You can push yourself to some new level. That’s the goal. That’s what anyone’s trying to do. So I feel like we were all 20 years better. We were there to use whatever mileage and scar tissue we’ve all acquired. We were going to play with all that: how you’re different, how you’re the same. That was kind of the quest.
Have there ever been brainstorming sessions where someone blurted out something and the other two were like, “That’s awesome.” But then the person whose idea it was was like, “You know what? That’s actually too close to the bone for me. It’s a little too personal.” Have you ever had to draw something back?
Never. Never. That’s kind of the beauty of our collaboration. We always find a way. It’ll get sublimated. It’ll become something else a little bit. And if the people in our lives call us on it, we just kind of say, “Oh, that was Ethan’s idea or Julie’s idea.” [Laughs] We’ll just say it came from someone else. No one’s ever [nixed an idea this way]. In fact, usually it’s two people pushing the other one to dig in a little further with their train of thought and to keep talking about it and see how it relates. We really push each other.
Because you’ve done these films and because you did Boyhood, which also dealt with time in an unprecedented way, are you tempted to revisit other characters from films you’ve done?
Nothing on the boards. No ideas that way. It’s a pretty bold, risky thing. Because it really does reflect back. When we were making Before Sunset, it hit us: “Oh gosh, we can kind of f— up the first film for people who liked it — or even how we feel about it — if you botch that sequel.” You’ve got to work harder. It’s not like some victory-lap sequel. Jack Black and Mike White and I, there was talk of a School of Rock sequel. And we are just like, “Well, you can’t just do it to do it. You’ve got to have a great idea.” And nothing ever really jelled. You’ve got to have something really gnawing at you, a reason to do it.
One of the things that popped out at me from revisiting one of the Criterion documentaries was just how Waking Life was a really pivotal film for you. Before Sunset and Boyhood were seeded either during the making of it or during the aftermath of that film’s release. Where were you personally and professionally when that film happened?
Yeah, not to get too self-dramatic, but if I really look back, Waking Life was a real hinge point of my filmmaking life. I kind of reinvented myself in some strange way. It pointed in some new direction, I guess. The experimental nature of the film, that’s its own thing. But I was also just having to think, “What kind of films do I want to make? Who am I? What am I doing as a filmmaker?” And that film itself, I always thought of it as my own little cinematic fever dream. It really did kick off some other things.
I have to admit I have mixed feelings about this Criterion set. On one hand, it’s amazing and beautiful and I’m so glad to have it in my collection. On the other, I feel like the fact that it exists represents some recognition on your part that the story of Celine and Jesse—
…is complete. And that would make me sad.
We don’t think of it that way at all. No one’s ruling out a quadrilogy or sextology, or whatever. We just don’t know. We’re still in our five-year window before we even have an idea [for another sequel], before enough life has gone on for us to even think. Nothing’s final. There’s just no way of predicting. But I like the idea of someone having all three movies in front of them like [the Criterion set], because I’ve talked to people who watched them all in different orders. You know, watching them backwards. That’s one way to do it. Or just watch them one after another; have your own mini-marathon. That’s pretty intense. So it’s kind of good to just make that easy for people.
I’m so thrilled you guys are open to doing more, because I guess 2022 would be the target date, based on the past timetable. Do you think you’d ever bring these characters to America?
You know, Before Midnight was initially set in America. It just didn’t end up that way. For about the first year of us talking about it, it was set in the U.S. It was about domesticity, but then we made the leap to a different setting. But I don’t know. Really, we’re a complete blank slate as far as what can be next. The joke is that it takes all these years to recover. We don’t want to think about it. It takes us five years to forget. It’s like childbirth.
Ultimately, each one of these films is optimistic when it comes to matters of the heart. Life is increasingly complex as they grow older, but love seems to win at the end of each film. Is that a fair reflection of your sensibilities?
I think it is, with these two characters specifically and life in general. Some people say, “Oh they fight and the last one is not so romantic.” I say, “Hey, at their age, they’ve been together that long, if they still really want to sleep together and talk a lot, that’s pretty f—ing good. That’s a good sign.” Obviously, they’re both heavyweights when it comes to verbal dexterity and trying to win their own point. They’re both pretty good manipulators, Jesse and Celine. So they end up in these tug-o-wars, and there are some faults in their relationship. In most relationships, there’s some fault lines where there’s going to be a little tremble or an occasional earthquake. It’s almost unavoidable, but if they’re willing to kind of work around that… I see it as optimistic.