Jan 30, 2012

INTERVIEW: Ethan Hawke on 'Before Sunrise', 'Before Sunset' and beyond

In a recent interview with Ethan Hawke for The Guardian, I talked a lot about the making of Before Sunrise, Before Sunset and the plans for a third film, which is currently in the "daydreaming" phase. We first talked first about the period in the early nineties when Hawke first met Linklater. "I was obsessively watching Five Easy Pieces, Antonioni movies, and obsessively studying Jack Nicholson's career 1970-80. I was almost two full decades late. I was a little behind. The one person I met me who was like-minded was Richard Linklater. I thought if Fassbinder were working today or Godard were working today they'd work together, they'd be in a band so to speak. Working with Rick was the smartest thing I ever did.”

He made you audition, is that right? “I was expecting an offer. I had offers for all these other things. We met one night. He came to see this play. We were each other's foil. We talked all night and had a great time. You know you have that feeling like when you might have made a friend: wow I really got along with that guy. He sent me the first script for Before Sunrise which at that time was a wildly different film — it took place in San Antonio, the guy was a rabid film fanatic who talked all the time about film — I read it and I was about to give him all my notes bout it, when I realised that it wasn’t an offer, that he wanted me to audition. So I came in with everybody else and auditioned. And then he wanted me to do it. And then I gave him all my notes about the screenplay."

The level of naturalism is exceptional, from the writing through the performances. How did you achieve the illusion of spontaneity? “What's great about Rick at his best is you just can't see him working at all, as opposed to a lot of other great directors — David Fincher, whoever — who are very popular right now. Rick has another set of abilities and one of them is: in the text of those movies, like real conversations, we often will bring up [topics of] conversation that get dropped. Rick used to joke that we would fail every screenwriting class in America. None of the rules work. But the major, major thing about those movies that Rick was onto was that, if people see you acting at all, then they're going to notice that there's not a plot. The whole game rests on that this is really happening: that’s the achievement. So we don’t need a fancy shot, we don't need the light to be great; we don't need anything except what it feels like to connect with another human being. What that feels like. That feels magical. And it happens not as much as we want. And that’s what the movie is. So as soon as Julie or I posture or pose or do a really funny line reading the air goes out of the sails a little bit. I used to joke that Rick taught me not to do what every other director wanted me to do: look intense, look broody, look this way, concentrate on the lighting... It was the first time I'd heard someone speak that way: 'it looks like a fucking Heineken ad, get it out of here. Real light is good enough...' I remember Julie saying, I think the movie needs to be funnier, I think I need more jokes, you need to write more jokes. And Rick said to her, 'I've been working with you for nine weeks. I find you absolutely and completely intriguing, beguiling and hypnotic. If we can get the real essence of you in front of a camera and they can't give a shit for two hours then I'm not interested in them as an audience.' She was like 'okay but its going to be bor-ing….”

Jessie performs for her, after a fashion. “We had to keep a little of the Tom Sawyerish, performance aspect in the movie. Boys do that. They perform for girls and girls are always kind of sitting still going: really? When are you going to stop doing that? One of the most fun [experiences] I ever had in my life was working on the scene where I was talk her into getting off the train. How does that happen? Julie was going 'I would never get off the train with some guy.' We had this long day of doing controlled improvs about what a person might say that would work and it was just: gong, gong, gong, gong. Because you can't come on too strong but if you're too much a eunuch, she's never going to go with it. You have to be self-depracating but upfront, do you know? It captures all these things. She was finally like ‘he would have to show me that he was really smart, he has to be smart and funny, that's the only way I would get off the train.’ We finally came up with this idea that I was a time-traveller*. She was like….. 'okay that I would get off the train for.' We were like: yaay. We knew we had it.”

* The filmed speech goes like this: "Think of it like this: jump ahead, ten, twenty years, okay, and you're married. Only your marriage doesn't have that same energy that it used to have, y'know. You start to blame your husband. You start to think about all those guys you've met in your life and what might have happened if you'd picked up with one of them, right? Well, I'm one of those guys. That's me y'know, so think of this as time travel, from then, to now, to find out what you're missing out on. See, what this really could be is a gigantic favor to both you and your future husband to find out that you're not missing out on anything. I'm just as big a loser as he is, totally unmotivated, totally boring, and, uh, you made the right choice, and you're really happy."

Did you have second thoughts about putting all the stuff about Jessie contemplating adultery in the second movie, given what had happened in your personal life? “I had all these thoughts. I wasn’t sure, Rick wasn’t sure. I ultimately feel that for the performance and writing to have something to offer you have to stumble cross something true. I had to make it real for myself. Selfishly as a writer, I felt like the movie needed an obstacle. They couldn’t be free to get back together. It's too easy. The funny thing about those movies is people have this idea that Julie writes Julie's part and I write mine and Rick oversees it. It’s a little bit like that and it’s a little different than that; it's much more like playing in a band. There are huge aspects of Julie's character that she writes but she also has terrific insight into Jessie. And Rick and I also provide that for Julie and Rick gets to use aspects of himself in both Celine and Jessie. So it’s not like I had some personal agenda, wanting to put autobiography into the movie. But [Jessie] kinds says my theory on it: we all have such a limited viewpoint that almost anything we write, even if its about elves and dwarves, is going to be autobiographical. You just need to use it to reach something universal.”

The second film was interestingly downbeat. Their idealism has taken a few knocks. “Its a hard line to walk. You know the Seven Up movies? One of the fascinating things about the Seven Up movies is that everyone seems to get worse. And one of the things that we wanted to do — we were daydreaming about whether or not there would be a third one and what it would be, and it's this thing of wanting to tell the truth about “nobody gets out for free.” Even when things go very well there's usually a price to pay; and when things go badly there's usually something gained. The trick is figuring out how to put that truth into the film. It's almost like there’s this third character in the movie, which is time.”

Does it feel different, third time around? "Certain people had discovered the first one, it had it's own little cult following but really it’s the smallest grossing film of all time to ever garner a sequel. We were doing it for us, as part of a life project, and because of that we felt no pressure, we weren't really worried about ruining the first movie. Now we feel those two movies are part of our lives work. Its important to us if we do a third one, that it not be because the three of us can't forget it, that we have something to say. A lot is happening in all our lives. If we're going to make a third one, I want it to be be the best, like the first two were prologues. Rick wants to treat it much more like John Updike's Rabbit books: Each one should work on its own, should be it's own thing. The dream is: someone's going to see the third movie, flip the fuck out, and someone's going to say 'Aah I didn’t like it as much as the first two'. And they're going to go 'what first two?' That’s the dream. That’s what we want to do.”

A lot of people seem to have a lot of opinions about what to put in the third film. “We're trying to tune out of the rest of the world and figure out what we want to say. That was easy 8,9 years ago, and now its hard. I'll go meet some fancy-pants director for a movie, they’ll go ‘oh this guy wants to meet you for this, that, or the other.' Okay I meet the guy and we start talking about his movie briefly and then they go: ‘I know what the third film should be.’ And he'll go on and on abbout what the third film should be. On one level its flattering and on another we have to tune it out.”

Where might you go with it? "The first two play a lot on projections — mutual shared fantasy. They're not in reality. They're ghosts wandering through: could it be real? Could it be good? They're connecting and everything but they don't have to deal with taking their wives to work or their wife's mother has TB or whatever the hell it is. The stuff that wears people down. It's not the fantasy stuff. I don’t think you can do it a third time. We all love the idea that someone is going to sweep in, but the one thing that sucks about falling in love is eventually falling out of love. One of the great blessings of an arranged marriage in the past was that nobody ever fell out of love. You just generally grew to appreciate the person more. As opposed to being disappointed that they're not who you thought they were. You know? Which is invariably what happens to most of us. I think its one of the things I want to get into the film is an acknowledgement of — and this is everybody's struggle — how do you keep your innocence alive. How do you keep your sense or romance alive? Your sense of joy alive. But match it with realism, to get rid of all the fake naivete. To see the world for what it is, reality for what it is. It’s a very difficult aspect of life. What do you do?”

That sounds like they get together at the end of the second film and the third one starts nine years into their relationship! "I've got to stop talking about this. I got an email from Rick. I've got to shut the fuck up. He thinks it's a real problem. People can't walk into the movie knowing too much — people who love it. We want to hit them with the real thing.”


  1. Wow, this is an amazing interview, Tom. It's one of the best I've ever read because you got the subject to talk in such a refreshingly way and tell us such provocative and honest things about these films and the filmmaking process. Fabulous work! Congrats!

  2. My two favorite movies of all time .... I'm 65 and lived in NY for 50 years, I'm just sayin. This was a terrific interview and I can't wait for the next chapter.

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