Just after sunset on the eve of the world premiere of his latest film, Before Sunset, director Richard Linklater walks into the darkened reception hall of the Berlinale Palast, the main venue of the Berlin International Film Festival, with his creative collaborators and the film's co-stars Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy. The Monday-night party -- an official soiree for European filmmakers -- is in full swing, but you can feel the energy in the room suddenly shift toward the trio as they make their way into the fray and join a small group of colleagues and friends.
Linklater hails from Austin, Tex., where he set his breakthrough 1991 independent feature Slacker, its 1993 follow-up Dazed and Confused, and the mesmerizing, one-of-a-kind animated film Waking Life -- one of two features he screened at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2001 (the other being Tape, a filmed version of a play, starring Hawke). But the director was a no-show last September when his major-studio film School of Rock, written by Mike White and starring the irrepressible actor-musician Jack Black, was shown as part of TIFF's gala program. Instead, he was in Paris working on Before Sunset.
When his absence is mentioned over the blaring music, Linklater laughs, apologizes in his typical gentlemanly way, then says, " School of Rock was the film on the flight over. It was kind of weird watching it without the sound." While that picture just opened in Germany, Linklater is here to talk about Before Sunset. The next day he sits down for an interview at a fancy hotel, away from the festival hub and just a few hours before he and the actors return to the Palast to walk the red carpet.
"It's strange to be talking about a film when you've literally just finished it," he says. "I mean, Ethan and Julie have only seen it on a bad-looking video dubbed off the AVID [computer editing system], so tonight will be their first time watching the real thing."
Nine years ago, Linklater won the Berlinale's Silver Bear Award for Before Sunrise, in which Hawke and Delpy play two twentysomething travellers who meet on a train in Europe, hit it off instantly and decide to spend the next 14 hours hanging out in Vienna until Hawke's character has to catch a flight home to the United States. Before Sunrise has since become something of a cult favourite, an exquisite, romantic and intelligent film featuring two people mostly walking and talking. If you are familiar with Linklater's independent works, you know this is something of a trademark device, one he not only enjoys but can also pull off.
Before Sunset -- which opened in theatres yesterday -- finds the actors reprising their roles as Jesse (Hawke) and Céline (Delpy), who meet again nine years later in a Paris bookstore where Jesse, a writer, is just ending a promotional tour for his first novel, not-so-loosely based on his Vienna encounter with Céline. Time is tighter this time -- the pair have less than two hours before Jesse has to leave for the airport -- and the walk and talk is more serious, though sprinkled with amusing philosophical detours, not to mention a melancholy romantic undercurrent that had even the jaded Berlinale media corps bubbling with praise.
"In a lot of my earlier films there was some kind of time element to the structure of them, whether it was 24 hours or 18 hours," Linklater explains. "And I joked back then that one day I would do a film in real time. In a way, Before Sunset is almost that, including even the banality of paying the bill at the restaurant -- things that would get cut out of most movies. So it's some kind of filmed reality. Of course it's not a documentary, but that's the feel we're trying to depict."
Linklater, Hawke (who has two published novels and directed the 2001 film Chelsea Walls) and Delpy (perhaps best known for her work in Krzysztof Kieslowski's Trois Couleurs films) collaborated on the screenplay over a few years, sending e-mails and occasionally meeting for breakfast if they ever found themselves in the same city.
"Right after we wrapped Before Sunrise we talked about making a sequel, and would talk about it on and off over the years," Linklater recalls. "I couldn't imagine a more collaborative experience. We were just a team and we agreed on everything. Ethan and Julie are both writers and directors, they're both musicians. [ Before Sunset] required them to give completely of themselves at the script stage, during rehearsals and shooting. So I feel we are really co-filmmakers."
Still, on a tight budget and with only 15 shooting days, it was up to the director to solve the technical challenges. "Real time is a nice structuring device for a narrative, but it presents some difficulties. We only had a few hours a day to shoot because of the sunlight, and most of the story happens outside. And there couldn't be a scene that didn't work. In most films you have an extra 10 minutes or more in a scene and you can restructure it in the editing, but we couldn't do that. So it's almost like a filmed play. The whole walk had to work, so the pressure was on."
While Slacker and Waking Life were clearly collaborative films -- in which Linklater cast non-actors, local "characters" from Austin, and let them do their weird and wonderful thing -- it's obvious he sees Before Sunset the same way, but more like a delicate chamber piece as opposed to a no-holds-barred rock 'n' roll orchestra.
"What I was mostly thinking of was capturing the idea of two people who are so happy to see each other again," he explains. "It can be fun to run into someone again, maybe someone you were once intimate with or had a deep connection with. There's a certain energy between two people that you can just ride on.
"And that's what makes what Julie and Ethan have done so remarkable," he continues. "The biggest compliment we could get would be for someone to say it looks like we just turned the camera on and they just started talking. In fact, this film had to be extremely well-rehearsed so their performances would be natural. There are no typical actor tricks for them to hide behind. So I think what they've done is truly courageous."