by Jay S. Jacobs
Sometimes, through a mixture of hard work, talent and sheer luck, a movie just clicks. Everything works. The 1995 romantic comedy/drama Before Sunrise was one of those films. It stood out from the pack of the Gen X films of the time, because it was smart, funny and had a serious point of view. It was light on its feet and yet asked big questions about life and love. It was deeply philosophical but never seemed preachy.
The film was loosely based on a true story from the life of writer/director Richard Linklater. As a young man he met a girl while traveling in Europe and had always wondered what might have happened had they stayed in touch. By 1995, Linklater had become a voice to be heard in independent film circles. His debut film, Slacker, was made on a shoestring and became a surprise success. His second movie, Dazed and Confused, became the American Graffiti of the nineties, introducing such future stars as Ben Affleck, Michael McConaughey, Renee Zellweger, Rory Cochrane, Milla Jovovich and Parker Posey.
Vying for the male lead was Ethan Hawke, a young actor who was creating a buzz in films like The Dead Poets Society, Alive and Reality Bites. Julie Delpy was up for the femalerole. She was a young French actress who came from a theatrical family. She had been working since she was fourteen. Delpy was in respected European films like Krzysztof Kieslowski’s White (part of the director’s acclaimed Red, White and Blue trilogy) and Agnieszka Holland’s Holocaust drama Europa Europa. Delpy had just recently dipped her toe into the Hollywood system. She played a supporting role in the 1993 big-budget adaptation of The Three Musketeers with Charlie Sheen, Kiefer Sutherland and Chris O’Donnell. Then she starred in Killing Zoë, one of the better Tarantino wannabes that was released in the wake of Pulp Fiction.
After many auditions, it had come down to four hopefuls to play the two leads. There were two actors and two actresses on the short list. “I did the audition with another actor in the morning and with Ethan in the afternoon,” Delpy recalled. “Ethan did vice versa with the other actress. That’s how I got it. I got it through basically talking to Rick and doing the audition. Actually, I think, talking to Rick. Talking about movies and talking about my desire to write, the fact that I’d written scripts.”
In the film, Hawke plays Jesse, an American who is traveling in Europe. He meets Celine, a beautiful French girl, on the train. They start to talk, and then he convinces her to joinhim in Vienna. He has a plane to catch to the United States first thing the next morning. So the two spend the night walking around Vienna, exploring the city and each other. They talk about their lives, hopes and loves. Over the course of the night, the two fall in love. However, in a naïve leap of faith for romantic destiny, instead of trading contact information, the couple just agrees to meet back in Vienna six months later.
In 1995, Before Sunrise opened to rapturous reviews. It did well in the theaters it played in, though it mostly was shown in art theaters and never got as wide a release as many blockbusters. Then a whole new crop of people discovered it when the film became a hit on video.
Delpy found all the acclaim very satisfying. “I put a lot in it of my own stuff,” she says. “We did a lot of writing, Ethan and I. So, for us it was very rewarding that people liked the film, because it was more than just an acting job.”
After Before Sunrise, there were expectations that Delpy would become a star, but they never came to be. Soon she was stuck in bad Hollywood fare like An American Werewolf In Paris or smaller, arty films like The Passion of Ayn Rand. In 2001, she even did a brief stint on ER, which was the most popular show on American television at the time. In recent years, she has naturally started gravitating towards home.
“I wouldn’t say it was the difference between European and American [filmmaking]. I’d say it’s the difference between Hollywood films and independent films and European films,” Delpy says. “I think European films and independent movies are very much alike… the same process. Hollywood films are another story. Too many people involved, and too much money and all that.
“I really think people don’t know what I’m capable of as an actress,” Delpy admits. “I was quickly put into the pretty girl kind of section. Pretty, but not pretty enough to play the bimbo next door. It’s limited for people like me. I realized a long time ago that Hollywood is not about good actresses. It’s difficult. That’s not about my career. It’s in general. In general, people don’t care about good acting, or good films, or whatever. People just care about [a film that they can discuss] with as many people as possible.”
Delpy jumped at the chance to get back together with Hawke and Linklater. They briefly reprised the roles of Celine and Jesse in Linklater’s 2001 animated film Waking Life. “It was a lot of fun,” Delpy says. “They were a little different, because they were kind of like the dream version of them or whatever. But, it was interesting. It was actually then that we decided that we wanted to make a sequel to Before Sunrise, because we enjoyed working together so much.”
Before Sunrise was not the type of movie for which the world expected to see a follow-up. It was nine-years old, too small, too talky and too artistic. It made a decent amount of money, but it was no blockbuster. Before Sunset has come to be, mostly due to the passionate determination of the three collaborators. Also, helping was the fact that Linklater had a little more power in Hollywood after his 2003 comedy School of Rock, starring Jack Black, became a smash hit. Therefore the money men were a little more open to funding the trio’s labor of love.
“We worked really, really hard on the script,” Delpy says. “It didn’t get green-lit right away. Rick had other ideas at first. Then we came up with the idea of an hour and a half, which was going to limit the budget. Then we worked together on the script. We worked really hard on making it green-lit.”
Delpy, Hawke and Linklater were full partners in the creation of the film. “We wrote it,” she explains. “I don’t like people to think that we wrote some dialogue here and there. That’s actually not how it worked. We co-wrote the film together.”
In the new film, nine years have passed. Celine and Jesse never met in Vienna six months later. Jesse has written a book, a fictionalized version of the couple’s magicalnight. It has become a bestseller… a tiny bestseller, Jesse insists. He is doing a reading at Shakespeare & Co., the biggest English language bookstore in Paris, on the final stop of his European book tour. Suddenly he looks up and sees Celine. She lives locally and had seen that he would be appearing.
After nine years of not seeing each other, they have a lot of catching up to do. Each has spent the last decade wondering if the other wasn’t the one that got away. Once again they are racing against the clock. Jesse has to leave for the airport in an hour and a half. The two walk and talk and try to figure out if they still have that connection, or if they had romanticized their night together to a point that no one could live up to it. At first the conversation is a bit awkward, but soon they are back in rhythm with each other. They start opening up about their lives and beliefs and disappointments. As they circle closer and closer to each other, emotions get raw.
They find out tantalizing facts of their pasts, including the fact that for a while they both lived in New York City at the same time. In fact, on his way to his own wedding, Jesse was sure that he saw Celine entering a deli on Thirteenth and Broadway. He had always chalked it up to pre-marriage jitters or wishful thinking. It turns out that at the time, Celine was living at Eleventh and Broadway.
Jesse opens up about how disconnected he feels from his wife. He says he feels like he is running a nursery with an old girlfriend. Celine acknowledges that she has a tendency to date men that she can keep emotionally distant.
Unlike most sequels, the characters have definitely grown and changed significantly. In fact, in the original film, Jesse was more cynical about love, while Celine was something of a romantic. Now, Jesse is stuck in a loveless marriage, but because of his devotion to his son and his true respect for his wife, he seems less jaded than Celine, who has dated a long line of men that were wrong for her.
Delpy feels that these changes are only natural. “Well, she was the most romantic in the first film. Like every romantic, she’s obviously going to be the one that’s going to get the most hurt. If she’s not as romantic, [she’s] not going to get as hurt. It’s less to go from, you know? If you’re a romantic, there is more chance that you’ll be disappointed. If you start off in life a little cynical, you might not have disappointment. You don’t expect much. But, maybe she was expecting too much. Then she became more cynical than she was.”
Obviously having written the character, Delpy feels a great deal of empathy for Celine. Still, she feels it’s too simple for people to assume that she based the role on her own experiences.
“It’s not really autobiographical, like her life is my life,” she says. “I wouldn’t make comparisons. Even her personal life and stuff is very different from mine. But, ideas I express in the film are obviously from me. I wrote them, so there are a lot of ideas that Celine has that I share with her. That sort of makes sense. I wrote most of the character. Obviously there are going to be things I believe in that I put in the character.”
The film is filmed in long continuous takes in real time, making it feel like we are eavesdropping on this pair as they rediscover something that they have lost. The conversation flows naturally and spontaneously, flitting off in different directions at a moment’s notice. However, this sense of realism was the product of a great deal of hard work and planning. It may seem like the dialogue was off the cuff and ad-libbed, but nothing could be further from the truth.
“Everything was pre-scripted,” she says. “There was no improvisation. Actually there were no possible ways to improvise. Because, if you have to do a film that is a continuous film in an hour and a half, with improvisation you have a lot of hesitation, a lot of going [off] on one track. It would be full of junk, the film. It isn’t. It’s like this long, continuous take. Actually, there’s not even one word in the film that’s improvised. I think I can probably say it’s the hardest work I’ve done.”
All of this is done with the backdrop of Paris, the gorgeous gardens, the quaint shops, the old neighborhoods and the majestic Seine River. The city is very much a character in the film, just as Vienna had been in the first film. However working amidst these beautiful surroundings didn’t overwhelm Delpy.
“I was born and raised in Paris,” Delpy laughs. “To me Paris is just Paris. I mean it’s lovely. I love Paris in the summertime. Unfortunately, I won’t be there this summer. It sucks, but… So for me, it doesn’t change anything. It’s Paris, you know? I’ve lived there for twenty years now.”
In many ways the new film was more immediate than Before Sunrise. The first movie took place over sixteen hours and had the two characters interacting with other people. This film is basically just the two talking in real time. Occasionally they would have to briefly run across other characters, but quickly those people fade back into the background. This was a conscious decision on the part of the filmmakers.
“When we were writing the script, as we went into the preface of writing, we discovered that any kind of interaction with other people started to feel kind of out of place,” she says. “So we just cut it out. It really came naturally to focus on those two. Or you make them interact with many people, but not with one. But then you can’t focus on them. If the film is only an hour and a half, you want to focus on what they have to say to one another.”
Although not many outsiders were brought into the storyline, two of these visitors were very important to Delpy. When Celine and Jesse get back to her apartment, she speaks with two of her neighbors who are having a cookout. Her parents, French actors Albert Delpy and Marie Pillet, play those neighbors.
“It’s always fun [to act with them]. When we wrote the ending of the film, there was this little scene with one character walking by. Rick wanted to cast my father. I said, oh my God, you can’t cast my father if you don’t cast my mother,” Delpy laughs. “It will become a huge dilemma. There is going to be drama at the Delpy house. So he was like, okay, just cut the character in two. So I shared the dialogue between the two and created that little scene. It was just like a little fun, private thing for us, you know?”
While in Celine’s apartment, she sings him a song called “Waltz For A Night.” Though it sounds like it was written specifically for the film, it actually comes from Delpy’s recent self-titled CD. It was one of three songs from the album that made the soundtrack.
“That came in the later stage of writing the script,” she says. “Rick and Ethan were listening to my album while we were writing. Rick was like, ‘Shit, we’ve got to put that in the film.’ Then we thought about playing a song live, you know, like when I sing a song to him. It was risky. It’s never easy to do that, to play a song live in a film. Then we discussed different songs. I played the ‘Waltz’ for them and it was their favorite. At first, Rick wanted another song, but then we decided this one was more appropriate. Then while Rick was editing, he asked me if he could use the song [‘Ocean Apart’] for the opening credits. Then a song [‘Je T’Aime Tant’] for the ending credits. It slowly happened, you know?”
Also in the apartment, Jesse put on a CD of “Just In Time” by jazz chanteuse Nina Simone, who had died a few months before filming started. Celine animatedly tells Jesse about seeing her in concert. The scene had a special resonance for the two stars.
“I picked that song, which is my favorite song of hers,” Delpy says. “Ethan and I were supposed to see Nina Simone play in Vienna when we were shooting the first film. We never got a chance to see her, because she was too sick to get on the plane. So, later I went to see her, and I was always sad that I never got a chance to see it with him. It was kind of like a little personal reminder that we never got to see her together.”
Much like the first film, Before Sunset ends on a slightly ambiguous note. The audience is left to imagine how this encounter is going to play out. This uncertainty makes the film even more fascinating. For years, ravenous cult fans of Before Sunrise have debated whether or not Celine and Jesse met back in Vienna six months later. Now we know.
Is the world going to have to wait another nine years to find out what happens next for Celine and Jesse? Sadly, Delpy is not sure we will ever know how the story ends. “I don’t even know if we will do another one,” she acknowledges. “Probably not. I don’t know. I don’t think we’ll do another one. I mean, I don’t know for sure. If we figure out an idea that we like, but I doubt it. We had the luck to do two. That’s already amazing.”
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Copyright ©2004 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: July 29, 2004.