Twenty Years with Jesse and Celine: Ethan Hawke on the Before Trilogy
On this past week’s Arts Alive, I spoke with Santa Barbara International Film Festival executive director Roger Durling and actress/writer Julie Delpy. The festival (which runs January 30–February 9) will close with an all-day screening of the Before trilogy, comprising Before Sunrise (1995), Before Sunset (2004), and last year’s Before Midnight.
Co-writers Richard Linklater (who also directed), Delpy, and Ethan Hawke (the trilogy’s stars) will attend and discuss the films after the screening of Midnight—which recently earned them an Oscar nomination for best adapted screenplay—in Santa Barbara’s historic Lobero Theater.
I spoke with Hawke by phone about the trilogy and his peerless achievement of creating (both as a writer and performer) such memorable characters who have aged and changed before our eyes in real time. But first I had to ask if he’d ever sat down to watch all three films back-to-back.
“I have not,” he admits. “I watched the first two right as we were getting serious about taking the writing of Midnight to the next level. Rick and Julie and I sat down and screened the first two. But I know them all extremely well.”
Even so, watching them jogged loose some forgotten memories, and Hawke was surprised at how much had slipped his mind. “The biggest surprise to me was how specific a person Jesse is,” he says of his character. “I was happy about that, and it was hard to maintain. There’s a weird style in these movies that blurs the lines between character and performer. When I watched the other movies I remembered who this guy is.”
The idea of making sequels to the original film was planted when Linklater reenlisted the characters in a sort of cameo for his surreally animated 1998 film Waking Life. “Rick thought it would be nice if Jesse and Celine appeared in his movie,” says Hawke. “So the three of us got together in a hotel in Austin to write the scene together, and we had so much fun writing it that afterwards we went to dinner and we all went, ‘Maybe we should write another movie.’”
“There’s something about the end of Before Sunrise that makes you wonder what happens,” he says. “There’s a certain logic to that dialogue—it ends with them making this plan to rendezvous in six months. Young people are always making plans like that, so the question was always ‘Did they do it?’ The beauty was in that question. And some people, some of my friends even, said, ‘You can’t answer that! You’ll undermine the whole movie.’”
But they did answer the question, and Before Sunrise was a delightful and accoladed rejoinder that caught up with the beloved characters in their 30s. “Because Linklater now wears his heart on his sleeve,” wrote Manohla Dargis in her review for the Los Angeles Times, “he has made a film that in its joy, optimism and aesthetic achievement keeps faith with American cinema at its finest.”
The latest chapter finds Jesse and Celine still together, vacationing in Greece with their daughters and navigating the straits of both their 40s and a long-term relationship. The critical response has been as enthusiastic as ever, and the completion of a three-part story of this nature—and of such high quality—is truly an unparalleled feat.
“I cringe at so many things I’ve done in this life,” Hawke admits, “but the Before films are not one of them. There’s so much of my friendship with Rick and Julie in those movies. There’s so much of all our lives in them.
“And it’s so much of my personal ethos of what I want to contribute to cinema. It’s the kind of movie I always dreamed of making when I was a kid—a movie where people don’t get their heads blown off, a movie that celebrates the ordinariness of life. Most movies make you feel terrible afterwards. Other people’s lives look so much better, their skin looks so much prettier. It’s like eating dessert—it tastes really good for a little while but afterward it makes you sick.
“All of my favorite movies make you realize that your own life is amazing. I love work, whether it’s film or literature, that doesn’t hyperbolize life. Where the sun coming up isn’t boring just because people aren’t blowing stuff up.”
Arts Alive airs Saturdays at 8AM and is available as a podcast, including last week’s feature on the Santa Barbara International Film Festival.