Actually, in a way, the series itself is a kind of letter from Linklater to himself. When I asked him the origin of the initial idea for “Before Sunrise,” he shifted uncomfortably, then said something he hasn't said often:
“It's personal and I don't talk about it, but I met a girl in Philadelphia in 1989, and we ended up spending the night walking around, flirting, doing things you would never do now. I was at that stage in life where I was open, so we just walked and got to know each other. I remember, even as we were walking, thinking, ‘This could be a movie. Not the intrigue that happens after people kiss and sleep together, but this, this period of learning about another person.' Which is probably what makes me a boring partner and boyfriend in the real world — throughout history! I'm never quite there for people, I'm never quite present. I'm always somewhere else.”
What happened after? I asked.
“Well, later I was at a film festival in Europe, and I had never left the U.S. before that, and I spent time walking alone around Berlin and Vienna, which is where the Europe settings for the film came from.”
What happened with the girl? I corrected.
“It's pretty sad,” he said.
Hawke told me Linklater hasn't been comfortable mentioning this until “extremely recently,” but he and Delpy knew the details: Her name was Amy Lehrhaupt, and she and Linklater met in a toy shop. For a time, they kept in touch by phone but drifted apart as the Austin, Texas-based filmmaker began a serious relationship. He always thought that maybe she would show up at a screening of “Before Sunrise” and realize her influence, but later, after the film was released, he heard from a friend of Lehrhaupt who knew about their walkabout. Lehrhaupt had died in 1994 in a motorcycle accident, a few weeks before the first movie began shooting. If you hang around through the closing credits of “Before Midnight,” you'll see: The film is dedicated to her.
After Linklater said this, I looked around. A few students sat nearby, but no one was eavesdropping. Linklater pointed to their headphones. Indeed, every one wore headphones. “It's a different world,” he said wistfully.
So different that Linklater told me he feels lucky to have made “Before Sunrise” before the encroachment of Facebook, of never having a good reason to lose touch: “A decade later, there would have been no way they lost touch completely or (as is explained in ‘Sunset') missed each other when they tried to reconnect.”
Besides, the series is about the magic of connection and the tenuousness of that connection — “the poetry of attraction,” Linklater calls it. Which is somewhat ironic considering how efficiently these movies are made.
“I come from a musical family and played an instrument my whole life but have never been very good,” Delpy said. “The only people who are good, practice like crazy, so I practiced the clarinet like crazy, and my dad said, ‘Oh, clarinet is so easy.' My point being, even people who know better, who know how hard it is do something flawlessly, can't help forgetting the work involved. The truth of these movies is, they are tediously rehearsed, every detail planned, every overlapping line scripted. It's so precise that it's almost a joke when people think we are acting off the cuff. But every single line in all three of these movies has been written.”
Linklater cast Hawke and Delpy in 1994, then, with them, completely rewrote the screenplay he had. Delpy said they were not credited because screenwriting guild rules gave authorship to the originators (Linklater and a friend, screenwriter Kim Krizan) and were never seriously challenged.
“Now the way it works,” Linklater said, “is me and Ethan and Julie have a gestation period and start emailing ideas, and at some point, when we feel these characters are living in us, we bring everything that happened to us since the last movie, pages of material, stream-of-conscious rambling, and hole up for this intense writing and rehearsal period and get maybe a half a page of script from every 10 pages that we brought in.”
For “Midnight,” this started a couple of years ago: For months, they considered tracing a day in the lives of Jesse and Celine, who didn't come together until the last 15 minutes, right before bedtime, as parents of children often do.
That idea, too potentially unsatisfying for a series so rooted in the connection between its actors, was tossed last summer, and the three came together in Greece, where, for 10 weeks, they wrote, rehearsed, then shot the film; as with “Before Sunset,” “Before Midnight” was made in 15 days for less than $3 million.
And like “Before Sunset,” your first thought while watching is: Everyone seems a little more weathered, a little wiser and a little dumber. (“Rick is about a decade older,” Hawke said, “so he's like a lap ahead of Julie and I developmentally, and sees things with a different intensity, probably more foresight than we do, so the movies have both visions working within them.”) And your last thought is: Is that the last movie?
Delpy said nobody wanted a second film, but then they were Oscar-nominated for their screenplay, so …
Hawke said the third film “feels resolved to me in a way the others did not.”
As for Linklater?
For the past decade, for a few days each year, he has shot material with the same young actor, material that will appear in an upcoming film. So time, as his great subject, has not receded. “And yet, I am always asked by people to do a ‘Dazed 2,' ‘School of Rock 2,' and some things you want to remain themselves. I would be fine if we never did another ‘Before' film. It would not feel like we didn't accomplish something big here. That said, six years on, maybe Julie and Ethan and I get to talking, then I go, ‘Hey, you know …'”firstname.lastname@example.org