It’s unusual for a director to be asked whether he’s going to add another film to a trilogy, but that’s the first question for director Richard Linklater, one of the brightest stars in independent American filmmaking, at his press conference at the recently concluded Jerusalem Film Festival.
The boyish, 52-year-old director is at the festival to present Before Midnight, the third installment in his “Before” series, that also features the films Before Sunrise (1995) and Before Sunset (2004), all of them starring Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy. Before Midnight is now playing throughout Israel.
“Well, we might do a comedic remake of Amour,” jokes Linklater, who is clearly used to answering this question. Amour is Michael Haneke’s relentless look at an elderly couple coping with dementia. “Julie and Ethan say it takes nine years to recover from one of these movies, so I don’t know,” he adds.
The movies, which are popular with audiences but have also received critical acclaim, follow two characters, Jesse (Hawke) and Celine (Delpy), who meet on a train in the first film and spend a romantic day and night together in Vienna. He is planning to fly home the next day and he suggests they meet again in six months. They part without exchanging phone numbers or even last names.
In Before Sunset, it turns out that they did not keep that rendezvous, but Jesse, now a novelist, has written a book about it, and Celine attends a reading he gives in Paris. In Before Midnight, the two are together again, this time in Greece.
One of the reasons it takes so long to feel ready to face these characters again is that Hawke, now a novelist as well as an actor, and Delpy, an actress who also writes and directs her own films, spend years working on the screenplay together with Linklater.
“I got lucky,” Linklater says of their unusual collaboration.
“It’s really amazing. I was just looking for the two most creative actors I could find for the parts of Jesse and Celine in Before Sunrise.” When he wrote the first film, he had no plans to turn it into a trilogy.
“But I developed a long-term relationship with these actors, who have gone on to very dynamic artistic careers,” he says. “The years have gone by and we are all at some new stage in our lives. In the first movie, I was in my thirties and they were in their early twenties. Now we’re all older, we’re all parents.”
Jesse is a hopeless romantic while Celine is more skeptical, even cynical at times. But while all three collaborators’ views on romance, relationships and the passage of time have evolved over the years, Linklater says, “We write the films together but they are not specifically autobiographical. I have always found myself in both characters. And we all write for both the characters. Julie doesn’t necessarily write more for Celine and Ethan doesn’t write only for Jesse.”
Asked whether parts of the films are improvised, since all three have such a realistic, natural feeling, Linklater says, “No, there is no improvisation. The movies are dialogue driven, but it’s scripted dialogue.
Ethan and Julie and I always have a really specific outline with a beginning, a middle and an end. For the second film, we all sat down together and wrote in a room. Now, since it’s harder for us to get together, we do some of it by email and phone.”
As natural as the dialogue sounds, it’s not easy for the actors to memorize – even though they have written it – and it’s also difficult for them to deliver it in the long takes Linklater favors.
“Our scripts look different from most screenplays.
Ours have one long middle column of dialogue,” he says.
But as challenging as it is, Linklater and the actors clearly find their collaboration rewarding, as do audiences.
“Most actors get paid to say things that feel goofy and awkward, and that they would never say in real life, and make it seem real. But that would never work for the reality we are trying to create. We have very intensive rehearsals, a very intense period of thinking about it. When we film, we never turn the camera on and they say things they haven’t rehearsed.... It’s the kind of acting you get no credit for. It seems easy but it’s really difficult.”
But while Linklater is best known for the Before films, his eclectic career has taken many directions.
He burst onto the indie scene in 1991 with the virtually plotless Slacker, a film which may or may not have coined that term, but which certainly popularized it. He then went on to make Dazed and Confused, about a group of high-school students in a small Texas town much like the one where he grew up, that starred a very young Matthew McConaughey and featured Ben Affleck, Adam Goldberg and Renee Zellwegger.
He also made the innovative screen-capture animated films, Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly, as well as the crowd-pleasing comedy School of Rock with Jack Black.
The son of a mother who was a speech therapist and a father who was in the insurance industry, Linklater spent his childhood moving back and forth between a small East Texas town and Houston after his parents divorced. He now lives in Austin, Texas, a city with a strong arts scene, where director Robert Rodriguez is also based.
Currently contemplating several projects, among them a college version of Dazed and Confused, he speaks with some envy of the old Hollywood studio system, where a filmmaker was funded to make a movie or two every year.
“It would have been nice to get a call from Darryl Zanuck saying, ‘I’ve got a new book from John Steinbeck you’re gonna direct,’” he says. “I’d like to think I would have had a career like John Ford or Vincente Minnelli.”
But failing that, he’ll just keep on making his own movies – maybe even the comedy version of Amour.