Adulthood, Julie Delpy says only half-jokingly, is "like crashing from a dream and waking up." Her new movie is the culmination of an 18-year dream, the third in a series of films — Before Sunrise, Before Sunset and now Before Midnight (out Friday) — that began with a fanciful evening of romance, impulse and a utopian tryst on the cobblestone alleys of an old European capital. This next chapter explores the consequences that come when two near-strangers — Delpy's hyper-intelligent feminist Celine and a witty writer named Jesse, played by Ethan Hawke — decide to follow their hearts into an uncertain future together.
The very fact Before Sunrise even got made is a mild miracle, a product of its time. A dialogue-heavy film made by a young director, starring two then-unknown actors, produced in Austria for a $2.7 million budget — all under the banner of a major film studio? It happened in 1994, but is almost a laughable proposition today.
"Now, I don't care what the movie is, they're not going to fund a $2.7 million movie, it's not their game plan," says director Richard Linklater, on the phone from Los Angeles. "I think they were maybe doing me a favor back then, wanting to do my next movie. The next film [2004's Before Sunset] was from Warner Independent, the arm of a studio, and now that's gone." With Midnight, Linklater says, they were "completely off the grid," using independent financing and international sales money before Sony picked the movie up at Sundance to distribute.
In this way, the first movie's production was much like the union of the series' protagonists, which began with a chance encounter on a train headed to Austria. Nine years later, Before Sunset rode on the premise that the two, who had spent a dreamy night strolling around Vienna debating their way into an unshakeable lust, lost contact after a family emergency forced Celine to miss their planned reunion. Having not exchanged phone numbers or other contact information, they were sentenced to a lifetime of wondering "what if," until a decade later when fate gave them a second chance.
"It was a huge commitment at that time," Linklater says, referring to the leap of faith that a viewer had to make to believe the pair couldn't have managed to get in touch between the first and second movies. "People were online in 1994, just not with Facebook and all that. But now, it's technically impossible to have that. But it reminds you, they wouldn't have mis-connected; [the fact that now] everyone is interconnected does destroy a little bit of the mystery.
"People forget how much time we spent lost," he continues, reminiscing about the days before cell phones, Google Maps and GPS. "There was no way to connect. You'd just walk around, people would page people. 'I called and you weren't home, so sorry, you missed the opportunity.'"
The characters, Delpy says, were entirely reconceived between the time she and Hawke were cast in the first movie and when it was actually shot. Originally, the characters Linklater wrote were "much more intellectual, much less emotional and much less romantic," and estimates that "there must have been ten lines of dialogue that stayed in." Delpy was 25 when that film came out, Hawke just 24.
Though they had no designs on continuing the series once they wrapped on Before Sunset, Linklater and his stars allowed themselves to imagine what the future would hold for Jesse and Celine, who had decided to stay together at the end of a second film that saw them exploring Paris in a single afternoon. "I always joke that it takes us eight or nine years to recover between each film because the work is so intense and so hard that we can't even think about it for the next five or six years," Delpy says, laughing.
They did know, however, that if they ever did decide to make another film, it would require the pair to have settled into a domestic life together; a third chance encounter was just too big of a stretch in the social media age. Doing so shifted the nature of the series, and presented a number of challenges. This time, they're in Greece at the end of a vacation, and their conversations — still long, meandering and charming — have gone from philosophical in the first film to political in the second and, finally, practical and sometimes petty.
"It's hard to make that station in life interesting, there's a certain commonness to it, it's not sexy, there are kids, it can be pretty banal and I think that's why some people hit a wall in their relationships — all the magic of youth and obvious romance is slowly being replaced by something else," Linklater, now 52, says. "It requires more effort: what is romance, what is love, what is commitment? You have to willfully work your way through it, and I think people who do that can recognize that oh, it's a hard earned thing but it's even deeper and richer if you stick it out and work through it."
Delpy suggests that the near-decade that separated Celine and Jesse's two run-ins actually contributed to what is still a very vivid couple, who have twin daughters and a well-worn bicker-and-tease routine. And yet, in Midnight, their future is suddenly called into question, a mini-crisis born from the little resentments and jealousies that come with intimacy.
"They lived in different countries. The odds are not necessarily for them, which is often the case," she says. "Sometimes it's those people that stick together because they had to overcome many situations to be together. When it's too easy, when it's your next door neighbor who is available and you're available, you haven't made much effort for the two of you together. Maybe it lasts longer, there's no rules, but it's always more interesting when there's more of a challenge for people to be together."
Having played the role for nearly two decades, Delpy, now 43, admits a certain affinity for Celine, and understands that, having only starred in a handful of roles in America, some see her and the fictional creation as interchangeable. Not that she minds.
"Yeah, but people think I'm Marion as well from 2 Days in Paris and 2 Days in New York," she says, referring to the similarly themed pair of movies she wrote, directed and starred in. "What's funny about that is that I made a film a few years ago called The Countess where I play a murderer from the 17th century, and my dad always says that's my most autobiographical work — and he's not entirely wrong. What I mean is that Celine is close to me, like anything I try to do. I try to put as much truth in things so that it seems very close to who I am."
Her next project, she says, is an adventure comedy, produced by a French studio but entirely in English. She wrote the screenplay and will direct, though she won't be in front of the camera for this one. Linklater is back to work on an ambitious 12-year film that visits for one week per year a young child he cast back in 2002, with Hawke playing his father and Patricia Arquette the mother. The storyline is fictional, but bends to how the boy has grown up in real life.
"I wanted to make a film about childhood, but a kid you're so limited, you try to tell a story about three days in their life when they're 12, what do you do?" Linklater says. "So I thought what if I bit off a little thing and just filmed a little bit. Time could sort of be a lead character and everyone could age as we shot it, it could be an interesting experiment of time."
In that way, it fits in quite well with the Before Sunrise trilogy.
"The more you move forward in life, the more your life is defined by the choices you made," Delpy says. "You start off, the choices are made for you, and then your life is more carved by your own will, which is all the choices we make throughout our life."