Interview: Richard Linklater & Julie Delpy of Before Midnight – Part 2
In part 2 of our extended, in-depth interview with director Richard Linklater and star Julie Delpy talk about the third film in their Before romance saga, Before Midnight. We discuss the stresses of pulling off Before Midnight’s extra-long-takes, the evolution of the series, the significance of the sun and midnight in the films’ titles, the great Robert Bresson, and more.
WTI: There are some spectacular long shots in the film, like the early, nearly 17-minute-long shot of Julie and Ethan exchanging dialogue in a car. When you come up with these scenes, are you simply challenging yourself?
RL: Oh yeah, of course. [The three of us] have grown into it. The first movie had a couple lengthy scenes, like the one in the tram which was around seven minutes. In the car scene, I thought it would be great [as a signal to the audience] if we could just hang out in unimpeded cuts, just look freely at them. Just hanging with these people that you haven’t seen in nine years, like running into an old friend—that would be the best feel for the early part of the film.
JD: Just be with them in real time. Something happens in these long takes after we’ve rehearsed for, like, two weeks and learned our lines like crazy people—it’s like playing violin flawlessly. It’s this kind of training—you have to do it over and over and over. We do it by section, then we add [the sections together], then we do it as a whole. It’s a technique of work that’s really, really tedious. We have to learn [the scenes] with the [correct] timing. We even write our overlaps in dialog. We have to really plan in advance. When we finally do it, it has to feel totally flawless. You really have to feel like you’re witnessing these people so the ‘wall’ is not there anymore, you know? (To Richard) What is it called, the fourth wall?
RL: (laughs) Yeah, the third or fourth wall.
WTI: Yeah, one of those. (laughs)
JD: When you do those long takes, as an actor, 90% of the time, it’s really stressful. But, sometimes, you get into that moment where you just…fly.
WTI: Like a band.
RL: Yeah! You’re just in a groove, and that’s what we’re going for.
JD: You actually don’t even remember what you’ve done. Usually with the good takes, it’s like you’ve lost yourself entirely. That takes training and training and training to get there.
RL: No one will ever know how much work goes into that. As we got closer to production, there’s this segue from writing to [Ethan and Julie] having so much dialog.
JD: That’s the horrible part! The horrible part starts!
RL: Then, Ethan and Julie’s faces drop, and they’re like “Aw, fuck! We’ve done it again!” We’d be taking a ride somewhere [before production], and we’d rehearse [in the car].
JD: We’d run lines with each other, with other people. We got the kids involved. [Richard’s] daughter ran lines with Ethan! It becomes a group project.
WTI: Robert Bresson would famously have his actors run their lines over and over, doing countless takes until their performances were just drained of any emotion, totally detached. They were just going through the motions at that point. How do you avoid losing that energy with the amount of times you two had to rehearse these long scenes?
RL: Bresson’s my favorite filmmaker, and yet, he’s 180 degrees different [from me] in sense of drama.
JD: It’s different, because [Bresson] was using non-actors most of the time, so it was probably easier for him to get this kind of [vacant] performance from them, detached from passion. [Ethan and I] are actors—we’re putting our intentions into [the performances]. It’s not just the lines, you know what I mean? We wanted to be realistic, [capturing how] Celine—who is very different from me as a person—would react. How angry she would get…I wouldn’t get angry like Celine gets angry. I’m very different, but how do I get to that realistic reaction in character, you know? How do I become her?
RL: We leave enough energy. We’re always working on it, even up to the night before we’re shooting. As much as we write together, workshop together, and rehearse, there’s still something to be discovered on the day. Even in the car scene, there was a line Ethan said in earlier takes that we dropped. I was still critiquing [the scene, asking] how it could get better. The process never stops. The goal is to be able to have exhausted everything we have [in making the scene], knowing we’ve fully explored it and we’re done.
WTI: One of the big differences between Before Midnight and the first two films is that the new element of other actors involved in scenes in addition to Julie and Ethan.
RL: We thought it was necessary to see them in social environments even though they’re on holiday with friends. You reveal a lot about your relationship and yourself vis-á-vis other people.
JD: Oh! You can say ‘vis-á-vie’ in English?
JD: It’s a French term! (laughs) You stole from the French again! ‘Vis-á-vis’! ‘Filet mignon’!
RL: (laughs) Yeah, so [showing them interacting with others] was important to us, but it was different bringing in other people into our process.
JD: It was really essential. When you see the scenes [with the other couples], they reveal so much about Celine and Jesse, but the [other couples] also mirror them. You see a couple their age, a couple older, a couple younger, and an [old man] who has lost his spouse. Celine says “I guess one of us will see what that’s like”. It’s going to be Celine or Jesse…or Julie or Ethan who goes first! (laughs) That’s way too depressing!
WTI: What did you guys say with Before Midnight about romance that you couldn’t say in the first films?
JD: That the pumpkin will turn back into a pumpkin! (laughs) Reality kicks in!
RL: It’s a much more reality-based film. We’re seeing them at an entirely different station in life. They’ve committed to one another, even though they’re not married. It’s so different. I think it’s a portrait of when you follow your passion and go for what you’re compelled to go for…life doesn’t always give you a free pass. There’s going to be a cost there.
WTI: Can you speak a little about the theme of the titles? The sun, midnight…
RL: If you think about it, the first two films are these naturally occurring events—sunrises and sunsets. Midnight jumps to time—that’s a human construct. Where they find themselves is something they’ve decided consciously. The attraction of two people is a naturally occurring, biological thing—the commitment and where they find themselves now, that’s [constructed by them].
WTI: Now, can you talk a bit about Jesse’s son in the films. When you referenced him in the second movie, at the time, were you thinking that it would be a cool thing to explore if you ever did make a third film?
JD: Oh! The offspring!
RL: Not really. We were thinking it would be interesting to start with ‘the price’. The one thing that is the fallout of [Jesse and Celine’s decision in Before Sunset]. The setup at the end of the second film is to think that they will be together. But, when you follow your passion in this world, you do affect others. There’s a price to be paid in this world. We start Sunset with that price right off the bat.
WTI: You see Jesse playing with his wedding ring at the end of Sunset…
RL: (laughs) It’s rare that you see a film that promotes adultery, to rig it so that the audience is rooting for the big taboo in our culture. They’re saying “It’s meant to be!”, but technically…they’re cheating. It’s code for a dishonorable person.
JD: Adulterers are usually the bad guys [in movies], but in reality, there are no good guys or bad guys. It’s not as simple as it seems.
RL: Jesse’s first wife probably isn’t so bad! (laughs)
JD: [I call her] a “fucking alcoholic cunt”! (laughs) ‘Cunt’ is a very pleasurable word to say!
RL: In the next film, Celine will be at [the son’s] graduation or something, and she’ll be really sweet to the mom. (laughs)
WTI: Are there any thoughts of a fourth film in your heads?
JD: We wrote and shut down the film a year ago. I always say it takes me nine years to recover, because it’s so intense. We dig so deep. If we felt it was forced, we wouldn’t do it. Actually, we questioned [Midnight]
RL: We’re on official hiatus for 5-6 years. If this ends up being the last one, we’re fine with that. If it’s a trilogy, I’m super proud. We felt the same way after Sunset and Sunrise, too. We don’t have to do it. [We only will] if there’s something to say.
JD: We always joke around. ‘Before They Go Crazy’ ‘Before I’m Too Saggy to be Filmed Naked’ (laughs)
WTI: Everything about Before Midnight is deliberate—from the dialog, to the camera placement, to the editing. Was there anything that happened during shooting that was unexpected?
RL: I broke my ankle! (laughs) But that’s off-screen. No surprises, really. [The film] is so constructed, so labor intensive. It’s a construct—nothing’s really left to chance. It’s not from a ‘control-freak’ angle—it’s making it work.
JD: [Before shooting], we don’t know if we’re going to be able to pull it off. As an actress, I’m never sure if we’re going to be able to do scenes in one take—I’m not sure if we’re going to be able to do it ever. The goal is to get those takes, and we question whether we’ll be able to do it as actors. If [the scene] doesn’t sound natural, it’s not working. It’s [Richard’s] job to make us go there, and it’s our job to go there. That’s the challenge of this film for me—“Am I going to be able to do it?”
RL: If there were any surprises, they were that Julie and Ethan were able to pull of the scene! (laughs) When we’re doing our Amour remake years from now, we’ll be going “Cut! Cut! Cut!”
JD: For me, it’s a surprise every time. “Oh shit! We did that take!” Actually, people who have to learn a lot of lines are less likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease. Public speakers, actors.
WTI: Is that right?
JD: Yeah! It rewires your brain every time you do it.
RL: I see a lot of plays, and you see these 86-year-old actors [doing really well] in a fucking play!
WTI: When you look back over the last 18 years of this project, what are you most proud of?
RL: Proud? I’m thankful. I’m thankful for the relationships that Julie, Ethan and I [developed]. It’s 19 years coming up—Sunrise was the summer of ’94—and the band’s still together.
JD: We’re lucky that we have this in our lives, and we’re lucky that it feeds [our other projects as well].
RL: We’ve only toured three times. (laughs)
JD: Luckily, we have that 9-year break. We don’t see each other very much during that time. We love to see each other when we can—it’s great—but it’s always just by chance. We’re all so busy.
RL: We’re big supporters of each others’ work. I think Ethan and Julie are great artists. It’s always been fun to follow them, to see them grow up. I met them when they were very young.
Before Midnight opens in theaters Friday, May 24th. Stay tuned for our full review.