Richard Linklater gets on his 'Midnight' express

The reel Linklater

A chronology of Richard Linklater’s major works:

Slacker (1991)

Dazed and Confused (1993)

Before Sunrise (1995)

SubUrbia (1996)

The Newton Boys (1998)

Waking Life (2001)

The School of Rock (2003)

Before Sunset (2004)

Bad News Bears (2005)

Fast Food Nation (2006)

A Scanner Darkly (2006)

Me and Orson Welles (2008)

Bernie (2011)

Up to Speed (2012)

Before Midnight (2013)


Posted 7:38am on Sunday, Jun. 02, 2013

In the world of Hollywood, the word “sequel” usually is synonymous with superheroes, comic books, and as many special effects as can be hurled at an audience. All in 3-D, of course.

But Before Midnight, the latest from Austin director Richard Linklater, is a sequel of a different sort. The third film in his “Before” series — Before Sunrise was the first in 1995, followed by Before Sunset in 2004 — is the latest snapshot of a nearly 20-year romantic relationship that has grown from flirtation and infatuation into what now appears to be middle-age malaise.

Starring Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy as writer Jesse and environmentalist Celine, the “Before” films revolve around long conversations that feel as if they’ve been ripped from real life. In Before Sunrise, the young 20-something couple meet on a train in Vienna and share a night together, not sure if they will ever see each other again. In Before Sunset, they meet nearly a decade later in Paris, where Jesse’s doing a book reading — and is married to someone else and a dad.

In Before Midnight, opening Friday, 40-ish Jesse and Celine are together, have two daughters of their own, but find that — during an emotionally stormy Greek vacation — getting what you want can still leave you wanting more.

The movie stands out from the summer’s pack of action and adventure films with its emphasis on words and wit, all delivered in long, unbroken takes. This is a film that demands to be listened to, not just seen. As the Chicago Tribune smartly noted, “it may be the best special effect you see this summer.”

And though he’s now 52, married and with children, Linklater — with his shaggy hair, T-shirt and jeans — has the look of a young fanboy who might be more interested in effects-driven eye candy than a film so reliant on the spoken word. But Before Midnight is a celebration of conversation.

Because much of the dialogue rings so true, Before Midnight has the feel of improvisatory back and forth, but Linklater says that’s far from the truth. “It’s all scripted. I’ve never improvised a line,” he said during an interview at a hotel during South by Southwest on a March morning. “I don’t really understand how you do that. ... That’s not interesting to me. It sounds weird but every gesture, every beat is really workshopped and thought out.”

In fact, Hawke and Delpy, listed as co-writers on the last two films along with Linklater, have been instrumental in devising their characters’ motivations and dialogue. The first film, inspired by a chance romantic encounter Linklater had with a woman in Philadelphia in the late ’80s, was co-written with then-Austin writer Kim Krizan because the director wanted the input of a woman’s voice.

So, putting these movies together is truly a team effort, with each film having a nine-year gestation period.

“It was the same kind of trajectory [with this film],” says Linklater. “About five years of not having any ideas and then at some point we sit down and do the hard work. Ethan and I will get together with Julie, and we’ll start talking for a couple of years. We’re just feeing our way through it. At some point, we sit down and do an outline where it’s like ‘OK, this works, this works,’ and then we have our outline in our head for another year and then once we really get serious, it’s [like a] workshop.”

“Lots of directors ask you to be a part of their vision, and almost nobody asks you to have vision,” Hawke, who has made eight films with Linklater, recently told the Austin American-Statesman. “It’s always the same deal. ... He always wants it to be our film and not his film. Almost every director is so full of ‘mine’ and ‘me’; it’s a bore. It’s nice when they’re so confident that they let you in.”

Linklater says that, while he wasn’t sure at first if he wanted to do a third film, fans of the first two kept asking him about it. “The second one felt like the biggest leap. No one wanted that film but the three of us,” he says with a laugh. “The third one, it was almost like it was anticipated, I guess the way the second one ends. What happens? In the interim, people would ask ‘Any chance to see Jesse and Celine again?’”

Highs and lows

Of course, in the meantime, Linklater was busy with lots of other films, including the well-received Bernie, a dark comedy starring Jack Black and Shirley MacLaine that is based on a true East Texas story about a mortician who murders a rich widow; and the much less loved Fast Food Nation, a comedic drama starring Greg Kinnear and Bruce Willis that is based on Eric Schlosser’s nonfiction bestseller about the dangers of the modern food industry.

Both were labors of love for Linklater.

“What so fun about Bernie is that I got to make it,” he says. “It’s been something I’d been wanting to do since the late ’90s. I got Skip Hollandsworth [who wrote the original article about the incident] at Texas Monthly to thinking about that as a movie. I was just happy to get it made. It’s funny, you stick at something long enough, sometimes it actually happens.”

Though Fast Food Nation was skewered by some critics — the New York Daily News called it “dispiriting, unsubtle, and unpleasant” — Linklater, a vegetarian, is still glad he made it. “No one wanted to see the movie. I think they saw it as some kind of message movie that no one thought was very interesting at the time,” he says. “The people releasing it weren’t excited about it and it was never going to make a lot of money, quality or not...[But] it’s an issue in my life. I really pay attention to health issues and that never goes away. ... That was a fun film to make and I got to play with all those notions.”

But might the subject matter have been better served by a documentary? “I don’t have the patience for [making] a documentary,” he concedes. “I think of documentaries all the time. There are a ton I would like to do but I’m a storyteller in a different way. I like to help documentaries get made. ... We’re in a great documentary age, but I don’t really have the desire to do one.”

(Despite his reluctance, Linklater did make the 2008 documentary Inning by Inning: A Portrait of a Coach, a profile of University of Texas baseball coach Augie Garrido. He is also the creator of a documentary-style travel series on Hulu, Up to Speed, which follows host Timothy “Speed” Levitch as he takes viewers on a tour of forgotten monuments.)

They are part of a career that shows Linklater is not afraid of taking risks, whether it’s the live action-animation blend of Waking Life (2001) or a remake of The Bad News Bears (2005). This makes him arguably the most versatile of all the directors —Terrence Malick, Robert Rodriguez, Wes Anderson — who’ve emerged from the Texas indie film scene.

Not anti-Hollywood

Unlike some of Linklater’s indie-film contemporaries who started as cult favorites — say Sam Raimi, who went from the early, low-budget “Evil Dead” films to Spider-Man — and then went on to helm mega-blockbusters, Linklater hasn’t really followed that path, though, as his résumé suggests, he has nothing against stepping into the mainstream.

“Well, I kind of did it with School of Rock and other studio films. I’ve turned down a lot of stuff that maybe fits that world,” he says. “But I’ve got my eye out for things that would challenge me...I have a couple of things in development that are studio-ish, so who knows?”

While many Linklater fans were clamoring for another film in the “Before” series, others are still waiting for a follow-up to his 1993 classic, Dazed and Confused, the breakthrough film about Texas teenage frustration that was the launching pad for Matthew McConaughey. But Linklater says not to hold your breath.

“I have a thing I’m trying to do about college life that’s set in the early ’80s,” he says. “That will be my sequel, but it won’t be those same characters.”

And what of Jesse and Celine? Will we get to listen in on their most intimate thoughts in another nine years? And every nine years after that?

“I made a joke the other day, ‘Well, we’ll skip the next four chapters and we’ll do a remake of Amour,’” he says with a laugh. “I would hope actually that Celine and him have a little more humor. I love Amour [the French drama about an elderly couple that won the Best Foreign Language Oscar this year], but Jesse and Celine would be a little more comedic I think. I would think they would have something biting and funny to say about being that age.

“Who knows?” he continues. “We’ve all looked at each other and said, ‘We’re going to enjoy not thinking about it for five years.’”

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