"The three stages tell you the film industry of the last 19 years," Richard Linklater tells TheWrap
"The Hangover Part III" may be the biggest three-quel to hit movie screens this Memorial Day weekend, but in indie circles that tale of Vegas debauchery will have to take a decided back seat to a man and a woman who'll spend an hour and a half having conversations.
"Before Midnight" is the third installment in an unlikely trilogy that began with "Before Sunrise" in 1995 and continued with "Before Sunset" in 2004. Every nine years, it seems, director Richard Linklater gets back together with actors Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke to tell more of the story of Celine and Jesse, a couple who met on a train heading for Vienna in the first movie, reunited in Paris in the second, and now find themselves a married couple with kids and tensions on a Greek vacation.
Like the first two films, "Before Midnight" is almost all talk – funny, pointed, intimate talk that unspools in long scenes of Jesse and Celine walking, driving or sitting around talking, the occasionally starry-eyed romance of their first two meetings replaced with something thornier and sharper.
Linklater, Delpy and Hawke have written the last two films together (receiving an Oscar nomination for "Before Sunset"), and they spoke to TheWrap on the day of their new movie's Los Angeles premiere.
These films have taken an interesting path. The first one was released by a major studio, Columbia Pictures. The second one was released by the now defunct indie branch of a major. The third is back in the Columbia/Sony family, at Sony Classics.
RICHARD LINKLATER: The three stages tell you the film industry of the last 19 years. The first one was a studio-financed film, $2.7 million. Studios wouldn't be interested in making a $2.7 million movie today. Never.
The next film was Warner Independent, kind of an offshoot of the bigger company. The mini thing.
And then this one, we were off on our own. It was equity financed, with no connection to the industry at all. We were fortunate to have Sony Classics as a distributor pick it up at Sundance. But we were much more off the grid. And we had virtually the same budget for all three films.
ETHAN HAWKE: Which means they're getting cheaper and cheaper.
So are you confident that there will be a market for this one?
LINKLATER: I thought there would be enough of one that we could get just enough money to make the movie. That's how you have to think, on a practical scale. The other ones have done pretty well internationally, so we had foreign sales estimates. It kind of made sense financially. It wouldn't have made sense financially for someone to spend a whole lot of money, but there's the right level you should produce every film at.
When the first two films showed recently in the Film Independent at LACMA series, Elvis Mitchell introduced them by saying they were "the lowest-grossing trilogy in the history of motion pictures."
LINKLATER: Well, this one hasn't come out yet.
HAWKE: But we're pretty sure we're going to maintain. [laughs] Even if everyone who saw and loved "Before Sunrise" and "Before Sunset" comes to see the third one, we won't do very well.
LINKLATER: That's why we like to emphasize that it does stand alone.
But you must have some pride in actually getting to do these films.
LINKLATER: Oh, it's a gift. The second movie, we were all in Paris and every day we looked at each other and thought …
HAWKE: "We can't believe we're getting to do this."
JULIE DELPY: Well, the second film, no one wanted us to do it. We were the only three people on the planet. My agent at the time thought I had some kind of mental illness when I said I was writing a sequel to "Before Sunrise."
LINKLATER: It made no sense to anyone.
HAWKE: But us.
Why did it make sense to you?
LINKLATER: The characters we'd created just sort of re-emerged.
HAWKE: It happened when we did a cameo in "Waking Life." We had this magical summer in Vienna, five years go by, Rick's making this movie about dreams, and he wanted Celine and Jesse to appear. So he invited us in to write the scene with him. And we'd forgotten what it felt like to be in a room together. We thought, "These characters are still interesting to us. Maybe we're not done."
LINKLATER: That gave us the kick. I don't think we ever could have made the leap theoretically. It took getting in the room together to make us think, "We should pursue this."
When things special happen, you sometimes think, "Oh, that's just a special moment that you can't recreate." But we found that our artistic sensibilities meet and we're able to work together. We're a band who should tour every so often, I guess. Or get together and make an album. Or whatever it is we're doing here.
What was the germ of the idea on this one?
HAWKE: The big leap on the second movie, "Before Sunset," was the idea that he had written a book about their meeting, and that she was coming to the book signing.
DELPY: And that they had not met again after parting at the end of the first movie.
HAWKE: This time, it was, "Hey, what if they were together?" Because the first two films are so much about romantic projection, and what could be. What if we tried to do a movie about what is? They're at another stage of their life where they're engaged with each other, and what does that do for their romantic aspirations?
What is the writing process like?
DELPY: Everything. There's no rule. I write lines for Ethan, he writes lines for me, Rick writes lines for all of us.
LINKLATER: I think when people see actors as writers they think they're in a room in character …
HAWKE: Improvising and writing it down.
LINKLATER: But no, it's very much a writerly construct.
HAWKE: We share stories, and we think how those stories might relate to Jesse and Celine. This one had a very simple outline. At its core it's just six scenes, and it's all working toward the fight. And so we focus on what information we want to convey.
DELPY: The beginning of a line might be Rick's, the middle is mine, the end is Ethan's.
LINKLATER: We find a lot of material just in conversation. I mean, we're working, but were also endlessly digressing about life, about politics, about art, about what's going on in the world. We all have permission to tell personal stories about anything. And within that environment, any of us can say anything.
HAWKE: Julie and I now know how Rick shoots and what interests him. And he knows what we can do. Rick would say "Oh, here's a great line, Julie will do something great with this."
LINKLATER: Ultimately, on a performance level, I know what they can do. I know they can do a 13- or 14-minute take. Not many actors can.
When you have so few scenes, but those scenes are so long, it puts a lot of pressure on you.
DELPY: If one scene doesn't work, there's no movie.
LINKLATER: And there's nothing to cut. The first movie, we cut out a few scenes. The last two films, there's really been nothing cut out.
HAWKE: No room for error.
LINKLATER: I like that. It's like being up there on the tightrope without the net. But I think we'll all three say this one was the most difficult to crack at a core level.
Why was that?
LINKLATER: Something about their age. It's harder to represent.
DELPY: And the subject. The first two films are about love, reconnecting. This one is about being in the eye of the storm.
LINKLATER: There isn't a clock ticking, there isn't a plane to catch. It's like your whole life lays out in front of you. How do you get into that? There were moments early on when I think we all felt, maybe we're going to bag this and not do it.
People who've been on a journey with these characters through the first two movies won't necessarily expect to hear the kind of things that come out in the argument scene.
DELPY: This is not about perfect people. It's not a romantic comedy. We're trying to get as close as possible to something honest, to show characters with all their flaws. It's not about being likeable. Most people are not crazy or violent, and yet they say terrible things to each other when they're in a fight. Sadly, but it's real.
LINKLATER: We had to not be afraid of Jesse and Celine looking less than perfect. You can't think, "Oh, our fans won't like that."
HAWKE: It's a danger when you're dealing with characters that mean a lot to people. One of our camera operators was a huge fan of "Before Sunrise" and "Before Sunset." And we did a scene where Jesse's kind of checking out a young woman, and he was really hurt. He was like, "Jesse wouldn't do that!"
[laughs] Oh, yes he would.