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Gee, long time no see

'Before Sunrise' never topped cult status, but the principals wanted a reunion. So they meet again, nine years later.

June 20, 2004|James Verini | Special to The Times

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" [2001] 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.

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