"Before Midnight," the third film in Richard Linklater's trilogy about Celine and Jesse's ongoing romance is one of the most delightful and insightful movies of 2013. The trio, who earned a second Oscar nomination for original screenplay, describe their unusual process in our interview below.
What's the big whoop about? Anyone who has been through a relationship of any duration will recognize the degree to which Linklater and his co-writers and actors Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy dig into the essentials of the male/female dynamic. (Joel Stein writes about this in Time.) The Austin-based director ("School of Rock") did something right back in 1995 when he first cast the American actor and French actress as two strangers who meet on a European train and enjoy a brief romantic liaison in Vienna in "Before Sunrise." They meet again nine years later when Celine shows up at one of Jesse's book readings in "Before Sunset." They're otherwise engaged, but the spark is alive.
That magic alchemy conjured 18 years ago by Linklater and two gifted actors who can sustain scenes across lengthy uncut takes finds its third iteration in "Before Midnight." It's a tour-de-force home run that will play like gangbusters in smart-house theaters all over the world.
In this one, our articulate couple is 40ish with children--four-year-old girl twins--and over the fading days of a halcyon Greek vacation, they hash out all the issues in their unmarried relationship, first in a sublimely executed 14-minute uncut car shot, next over dinner with friends (shot with multiple cameras), and finally at a resort hotel, where they try to ignite some romance but wind up having the fight from hell.
The American expat writer and his French environmental activist partner clearly love each other, but the issues that trouble them--custody battle over his son with his ex-wife, child care and housekeeping, sex, career vs. career--threaten to topple the relationship when they come pouring out.
Linklater and these deft comedic actors keep things moving, with plenty of laughs and moments of painful recognition. The film never drags: the long-take narrative keeps us engaged and stimulated by its man vs. woman debate for the ages--full of regret, anxiety, love and intimacy. It's the real deal. As one of them says, when it comes to marriage, "you have to be a little deluded to stay motivated."
"We realized the characters are still alive," Linklater explained at Sundance 2013. "We know each other real well. I'm always going for naturalism, workshopping it, scripting very specifically, going for the flow." Delpy says they rehearse a lot and change the lines to make them work. On every film they dig a little deeper into the characters by writing them.
They spent ten weeks writing the script on location in Greece, meeting every day. "It's kind of fun to do a fight scene," says Delpy. "It was probably the most fun scene to shoot, even though it was intense."
"It was the most difficult one to write," says Hawke. "The whole movie is cathartic. The performing is fun."
"We as writers think there is humor to be mined, constantly," says Linklater.
"How do you find the right medium between being engaging," says Delpy, "and finding this right very minute little tiny window where that scene can work emotionally?" The pitch of the last scene was the most challenging of all, not making it too melodramatic. "Where do I go that is painful," says Delpy, "but it still comes back to hope?"
Up next: Delpy is writing another Euro-financed movie for herself to direct (her sixth), while Linklater and Hawke just debuted at Sundance 2014 their 11-year project about watching a kid (Ellar Coltrane) mature and grow up, from first through 12th grade. Hawke plays the father. Linklater filmed a little more of the movie for two weeks every year. "It's another film about time. One year fades into the next. It's contained. Time is the main character, while [in 'Before Midnight'] it's a supporting character."