In this age of brand-enhanced, franchise-fattening “media events,” when inane sequels, incomprehensible prequels and unjustifiable remakes seem to be replacing original films like the pods replaced the real people in “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” (which, by the way, is being remade for the third time), there may be scant room for a film like “Before Sunset.”
A sequel to “Before Sunrise” (1995), which chronicled the dusk-to-dawn romance of a listless American boy and the Parisian student he meets on a train outside Vienna, “Before Sunset” picks up with the characters, now in their early 30s, in Paris. Jesse (Ethan Hawke), now a married author whose bestselling first novel is about their night together, and Celine (Julie Delpy), still a Parisian, have not seen or spoken to each other since. From the first moments, it’s clear they have both been pining away all that time. Then they talk, for the better part of the next 80 minutes. That’s the movie.
Shot in 15 days on location in Paris, co-written by the stars and the director, Richard Linklater, and taking place in real time, “Before Sunset,” which screens Wednesday evening at the ArcLight Cinerama Dome during the Los Angeles Film Festival before opening in theaters July 2, is more purely naturalistic than its precursor -- which was pretty naturalistic -- and even more of a commercial oddity.
“We think we’re the lowest-grossing film to ever spawn a sequel,” Linklater said of “Before Sunrise,” which made $5.5 million domestically. (His last film, the Jack Black comedy “School of Rock,” made $81 million.) “There was no economic basis for it.”
Basis or no, “Before Sunset” also happens to be a small gem in a summer that appears awash in yet more blinding costume jewelry.
Reminiscent of Eric Rohmer’s “My Night at Maud’s” and Francois Truffaut’s Antoine Doinel series, it is a limpid, frankly melancholic and yet starry-eyed (who stays in love with someone they haven’t seen for nine years?) look at Jesse and Celine’s passage into adulthood. “Romance for realists” is how Hawke characterized it.
The writing process appealed to him and Delpy. In addition to acting and directing, Hawke has written two novels -- “The Hottest State” (1996) and “Ash Wednesday” (2002). He’s starring in a remake of John Carpenter’s ‘70s cult classic “Assault on Precinct 13.” Delpy, discovered by Jean-Luc Godard when she was 14, writes and directs short movies and composed three of the songs in “Before Sunset.” Linklater’s next project will be an exercise in contrast: He’s directing a big-budget adaptation of the Philip K. Dick story “A Scanner Darkly.” Given that credo, the film’s ambiguous ending -- does he stay in Paris or does he go home to America and his wife and child? -- seems fitting.
What follows is a brief oral history, based on phone conversations, of how and why Linklater, Hawke and Delpy conceived of this sequel and made it.
Hawke: Rick really wants to capture you -- the person, not the character. [On “Before Sunrise”] Rick asked me, “How would you get this girl off the train?” And I would try out opening lines on Julie and she would shoot them down until we got to the one that she believed would get her off a train. With Rick you’re always going after a naturalism, and he leaves it up to you. He would say to us, “OK, this next scene needs to be the best scene in the movie. I don’t know what’s going to happen in it, but it needs to be the best scene in the movie.”
Linklater: We didn’t know we were going to do a sequel. It started percolating in the aftermath of “Before Sunrise,” not because of others’ responses but because of our own collaboration. Whenever Julie and Ethan and I were in the same city we’d get together and talk about it. It wasn’t until we all worked together on “Waking Life”  that we realized we had to do it. The first one was much more of an outward-looking experience for the characters, a physical adventure into the space of Vienna. This one could have been in any city. It’s all about them. My tag line through the whole movie was, “If you didn’t like the first one, you’ll really hate this one.”
Delpy: I insisted at the end of “Before Sunrise” that Celine and Jesse agree to meet again -- otherwise it was too much of a male fantasy. On that one, the script was more solid when we began rewriting, but in this one we were able to create the characters almost from scratch again. It was much more interesting to write Celine now than then, because she has so much more of a life. I want to be a writer and director more than an actress. It makes me so, so happy directing and editing. There was no point in doing the film if I couldn’t help direct, and that’s what Rick wanted.
Hawke: It was like getting the band back together. There was an immense creativity there. I did the first one because Rick wanted to improvise on the script and because I liked Rick’s insistence that we stay with the reality of everyday life. It’s like [Jesse] says in the bookstore scene in the beginning of “Before Sunset”: “I’ve never been in a helicopter crash, I’ve never been in a gunfight.” All it was about was connecting with another human being. If you can celebrate the minutiae of that kind of thing -- that’s where the real drama is.
Linklater: If you want to make something that’s real you can’t stick with your preconceived notions and what reads well. We wanted the conversation in this one to have this trajectory of reveal. We worked it out on a chart. For a year we e-mailed and faxed revisions to each other. It was pretty democratic. There were scenes that Julie and I liked that Ethan didn’t and vice versa. We’d cut them out. It was still a huge challenge to be natural and realistic and watchable and entertaining. We had to write it and rehearse it like a play. A lot of it was an intuitive timing thing. We had one of the longest, maybe the longest, cafe scene in history. It’s 13 1/2 minutes long. Rohmer had some long cafe scenes, but I went back and watched some -- the longest was four minutes.
Delpy: Ethan would write monologues and send them to me and I’d edit them. I would write monologues and send them to him, then we’d send them to Rick. Everyone contributed to it. When we saw each other, we’d lock ourselves in a room and just write. It was very intense. We worked in my apartment in Paris for four intense days. Two weeks before the shoot we read through it and we cut out everything that wasn’t really entertaining and really interesting, anything that was too self-righteous, and putting in anything more personal, more emotional. The goal was to make it as fine as possible, sand it down. For some reason I want to compare it to sanding a table.
Hawke: We had to keep the conversation changing shape and moving forward. It needed to keep deepening. We read through the script together, again and again, and were honest about it. I’d say, “I got bored here,” and Julie would say, “Well, I got bored here.” Keeping the conversation interesting was the challenge. It had to be mathematical.
But it’s still experimental. I mean, if you handed this script in in film school you’d get a big fat F. The conversation is a metaphor for the stages of a relationship: At first they’re trying to impress each other, then they try to get deep, then they get scared.
Linklater: It was important to avoid the cliche “Oh, they’re miserable, and it’s not like youth.” Many people have found this movie romantic. They’re both still vibrant, curious people and do things that reflect that. It’s like Jesse says: “My problems are bigger, but I’m more equipped to deal with them.” All you can do in life is follow your impulses and end up where you are. I wanted it to be like running into an old friend at an airport. You’re so happy to be there at that moment with that person. There’s an interior euphoria. Nothing else matters.
Hawke: In your early 20s life is full of romanticism and hope. In your early 30s life becomes incredibly real. Thus the idea for the film taking place in real time. All those sweeping takes -- life is flying by them. In your early 30s you have to admit the mistakes you’ve made throughout your life. The first one was like a dream. But in this one they’ve awoken to reality -- and they have to deal with the consequences of that dream. You make decisions in a moment and then you spend years dealing with those decisions.
Delpy: Making these movies was like a relationship. You’re together, then you break up, then you have a few more relationships. Then three or four years later you realize, “Wait, that was really good.” We went off and did our own things, but we never had that experience again.
To me, writing about someone who has lost the idea of romantic projections, who’s disillusioned -- it can be sad but at the same time, if you’re a hopeless romantic, you’d better hang yourself. Losing romantic ideas is good. It’s better to be disillusioned than to be romantic -- it’s too painful to be romantic.
Linklater: This movie is all about them -- no one else exists. It’s like they say in the first one: “We’ve created our own time.” We watched “Before Sunrise” before we started. It scared us. The bar was so high. You don’t make a sequel and not go to some new level. There’s no place in cinema for these ideas, and I like doing films like that. When someone says, “This should be a novel” -- that’s when I know I’m in the right place.
Hawke: It’s getting harder and harder to do movies that don’t set out to be blockbusters. But with this we could make it however we wanted it. These are my two best experiences in film, I think -- my two favorite things I’ve worked on. And I think of the two of them together as one film. I dream about making a third one. I see [Jesse and Celine’s] story as a kind of magnum opus.
James Verini can be contacted at email@example.com