The first kiss takes so long: Richard Linklater on Before Sunrise | from the Sight & Sound archive
In 1989, Richard Linklater met a woman in a toyshop in Philadelphia. They walked around the city together, conversing intimately, deep into the night. For Linklater, the only thing holding him back from complete immersion in this brief encounter was the nagging suspicion that it “could be a movie”.
Now it is. Before Sunrise shares the less-than-24 hour timespan of his two previous films. But whereas Linklater ‘s groundbreaking mid-20s lifestyle epic Slacker (1991) could boast not far short of a hundred characters, and his hazy but perspicacious high-school memoir Dazed and Confused (1993) had between 20 and 30, Before Sunrise puts just two characters “under a microscope to see what would happen”.
Set in Vienna, which Linklater describes as being “a lot like Austin – full of smart people in coffee shops at a loss for what to do next,” Before Sunrise pursues his theme of roads not taken. Jesse – a rangy American Euro-railer, played by Ethan Hawke – persuades Julie Delpy’s smart French student Celine to get off a train with him on the grounds that this will forestall the moment in 20 years time when she will wonder what might have happened if she had.
With the same capriciousness that led it to constantly hare off to meet new people in Slacker, Linklater’s camera opts to stay with them, even when potential distractions – an arguing couple on the train, a German avant-garde theatre troupe – seem to offer more in the way of dramatic reward.
Slowing down the traditionally accelerated screen romance to something which at least feels like real time proves to be a productive device, allowing compelling ambiguities to open up, not only in the characters’ relationship with each other but also in the audience’s relationship with the actors who play them and the genre they inhabit.
A series of romantic set-pieces – a chance initial meeting, subsequent encounters with a gypsy palm-reader or a street poet – prove to be not quite as set as might have been imagined. When Celine and Jesse part, the camera revisits all the places they have been, and finds them diminished by their absence.
Before Sunrise opened the Sundance festival, confirming Linklater’s standing as a leading American independent film-maker, even though this film is actually – like its predecessor Dazed and Confused – a studio presentation (the studios being, respectively, a supportive and hands-off Castle Rock and a somewhat less sympathetic Universal). From the voice of Generation X to the Texan Eric Rohmer, the conventional wisdoms about Linklater do scant justice to the distinctiveness of his work He is habitually discussed in terms of disconnection and disengagement, but it is for connecting and engaging that he should be most celebrated.
Cinematically self-educated (excepting a term at a community college film history course: “they’d ask for two-page assignments, I’d deliver eight”) Linklater founded and is still artistic director of the nine-year-old Austin film society. His life’s work is “trying to serve the movie-making process in ways that aren’t being done much,” and straight after this interview he was jetting off to Berlin to collect a Silver Bear.
Do you think not having any formal training helped you to find your own cinematic voice more easily?
It’s hard to say why you do stuff, but I think my instinct in not going to film school was basically that I didn’t want anyone telling me what to do. It’s that authority thing – some teacher saying [assumes ridiculous quavery voice] “Where’s the close up of the hands?” Or, “This story won’t work, there’s no dramatic tension.”
“This story won’t work, there’s no dramatic tension,” would have caused a few problems for Slacker.
Exactly. I would never have been able even to conceive of that movie if I had been in some programme whose job was to churn out people for the industry. And also I guess I was just too shy – I didn’t want to make films before I was ready.
You worked on offshore oil rigs for a couple of years. Was it your ambition to make films even then?
It kind of came about during that period. Because we worked out in the Gulf of Mexico, when I was on land I had a lot of time. At that point I was mostly interested in writing and reading, but when I was ashore I began seeing two or three films a day at least. I was living in Houston which still had a big repertory theatre which had double features: The Magnificent Ambersons and Citizen Kane, Badlands and Days of Heaven. I had this book, The Technical Aspects of Film-Making. It sat on my shelf. I’d look at it everyday and think, “Some day I’m gonna open that.”
It must have been frustrating going back on the rig.
Not really, because I would just read. At sea it was all literature – Dostoevsky, whatever – but on land it was all film.
Was there a corresponding conflict for you between ambitions to write or become a filmmaker?
I think I wanted to be a writer at first – growing up in Texas that seemed the only option, though I played music a little bit too. It took me a while, and seeing a lot of movies, to realise that I wasn’t really a writer: I had a visual thing, I could see films in my head, and cinema is really my calling. If I couldn’t make films anymore I would try and get them seen, or write about them, or own a theatre, something like that – I think of it as all the same anyway.
How did you set about training yourself to make films?
My off-shore period should have been my second two years of college, so by the time I was 22 I had all this money saved up. I moved to Austin and brought a Super-8 camera, a projector and some editing equipment, and started studying that book A lot of film-malting — the finer points of lighting for example — is a real craft which it takes years to perfect, but the basic stuff is easy. Anyone can set some lights and shoot a scene. And I found I loved the technical aspects of it: I would blacken my windows and edit some film I just shot for 24 hours straight. I spent several years doing shorts which were really just technical experiments. Looking back I’m amazed at how methodical I was – I would do a whole film just to work on a different lighting technique. I knew it was important not to try to say anything in my first couple of years, as I would probably get really frustrated and quit, because I wouldn’t have the formal skill to achieve that thought. Finally, as a kind of culmination of all this work, I did an 89 minute Super-8 feature.
What was it called?
It’s Impossible to Learn to Plow by Reading Books. I spent two years on it: shooting for a year and editing for a year- I’ve never had that schedule since [laughs].
Has it ever been shown?
We had a little film festival in Austin recently, where I showed it for the first time. A lot of people say it’s their favourite film of mine, but it’s so personal it’s kind of painful to watch.
What is the film about?
It’s kind of a prequel to Slacker and a forerunner of Before Sunrise, in that it’s actually all about the mind-set of travel. It’s about a trip around the US on Amtrak: more than half the film takes place on a train, the rest is just getting off in a town and walking around. It’s like one guy- me — I would put the camera on trip, push the button, then go and be in the scene. It’s very formal, the camera never moves, but there’s hardly any dialogue in the whole movie, and what there is is just kind of mumbling because the microphone is at a distance. In a way it’s the opposite of Slacker, where everybody says exactly what is going on inside their heads.
In all your films there seems to be a very exact sense of history, in terms of both your own personal place in it and observing things culturally with a high degree of accuracy. It must have been very galling for you to have Slacker so widely thought of as the epitome of something that it wasn’t.
You have to make your peace with a film when you finish it, as whatever happens to it then is beyond your control, but it has been a little irritating. I have found myself somewhat detached from the whole Generation X/Slacker conversation – kind of bemused by it. President Clinton is using the word! He did this graduate address at UCLA and he was saying “I don’t think you’re a generation of slackers, I think you’re a generation of seekers,” but to me that’s what slackers were: seekers. All these people in the film had their own projects going – the guy’s JFK assassination book, or the woman’s menstrual cycle sculpture – but they were outside the consumer culture. That’s the cardinal sin: not basing your life around working or buying things. And it does bother me when people who should know better project negativity onto that.
It’s a neat irony that something which starts out as a rejection of life lived as a marketing category should then become a marketing category in itself – a means of selling stuff to all these kids that don’t want to be part of a capitalist process!
I know, I know. It’s a really evil circle. I think that’s why I didn’t want to get into that whole thought too much, because it’s my worst nightmare. People look at the characters in Slacker and ask what’s wrong with them? They’re white, semi-middle-class kids — what have they got to complain about? And I say well, it’s kind of a malaise in this culture where the enemy, the idea that money is everything and we should all capitalise on the new trend, is so subterranean, so entirely in all of us. I think that’s what they’re complaining about: they’re complaining about what’s going to happen to them before it’s even a deal!
So with Dazed and Confused, did you have a sense of trying to supply historical perspective?
That was really important, because I don’t think people have changed, which is why all this generational talk is ultimately ridiculous. It’s just demographics: you have to make people feel special when you’re trying to sell them stuff. No one’s going to get anywhere saying, “You know, people don’t really change that much.” People were like this in the 70s too, and probably even in the 50s. It’s only the drugs that changed. So there was definitely an idea of a continuum with Slacker. Dazed and Confused is set in 1976 – the hair is long, the music is kind of the same.
It’s funny that people were rebelling against that whole FM rock thing then, and now it sounds great.
Right. It was all, “What is this corporate garbage they’re shoving down our throats!” Retrospectively, I found an energy there, and I used that to drive the movie. That’s the major character in the movie — the music.
How did you make that work? Did you plot the soundtrack as you plotted the film?
Sometimes, yes. It was very intuitive: I’d wake up every morning with a new idea of what song would work where. About half of them I had before shooting began, and the other half came as it went along. I knew it would open with ‘Sweet Emotion’; ‘Hurricane’ would be when they walked into the pool hall; and when Mitch was getting spanked it would be ‘No More Mr Nice Guy’. I liked the irony of the lyrics, even if some of them – ‘School’s Out’, for example — are a bit obvious.
That’s how it should be though, isn’t it? You don’t get many teenagers saying “I’m not going to like that song — its relevance to my life is too readily apparent.” I suppose it’s the same with films. Presumably in making Dazed and Confused you gave the odd thought to the proud heritage of bad high-school movies?
It was probably seeing all of them that made me think I had a teenage movie to make. I wanted to make a film that captured the energy of what I remember: driving around, not much happening but everything happening at once. It was fun to be in a genre that I knew pretty well — there are a lot of good high-school movies too.
What sort do you like?
My favourite ones are really the edge movies, Over the Edge, River’s Edge. I like If.. a lot- the true way to end a teenage movie is complete apocalypse, whether it’s imagined or real. Like in Over the Edge, they’re fire-bombing the school that’s the ultimate teen thing.
Dazed and Confused ends more on a plateau though.
My movie’s a little more ambiguous I guess. It just wasn’t a good enough set-up: the oppressive force wasn’t so clearly defined.
What was the oppressive force? Not Aerosmith, surely?
Just being a teenager: having to have parents, having to have teachers, having to live in a shitty town — it’s bad enough.
Are you worried that you might have made this generation’s Animal House?
If I have, I didn’t mean to! There are teenagers who’ve seen Dazed and Confused 50 times and have parties to it. They all think the 70s were a great time, even though there is plenty of evidence to the contrary in the film.
Were the two characters in Before Sunrise set in stone in your mind before you knew who would play them?
I had a script, and there were two people I was looking for, but I wasn’t really aware of who until I found them. If say an American woman and an Italian man had been right then it could have easily swapped over. It was always vague. It was the same with the city.
Once you’d settled on Vienna, did you have to work hard to avoid homages to The Third Man?
Well, we did film on a Ferris wheel, but only because it was the sort of touristic — I love that word — thing the two characters would do.
I like the way the film’s structure echoes the trajectory of their relationship: it’s as if the characters are deciding when and how to move things on.
The film’s only agenda is to go onto the next interaction – all it propels you to is the next thing. The fact is they won’t know until they’re apart how much they really care about each other. We all create these romantic ideals, even if they don’t exist. It’s kind of an endearing thing about the species that we do that.
There’s an unusually forthright quote in the production notes. Julie Delpy says, “I knew unless I was tough with these two American men, Celine could have possibly disappeared into some cliché-ridden feminine mass.” Then there’s the line in the film where she describes the scenario as being “like a male fantasy: meet a French girl on a train, fuck her and never see her again.” Was it this that led you to seek out a female co-writer [Kim Krizan, Cynic Questions Happiness in Slacker and the teacher in Dazed and Confused who says, “The 1968 democratic convention was probably the most bitchin’ time of my entire life” for Before Sunrise?
I certainly thought that since the film is so much a dialogue between a man and a woman, it was important to have a strong woman co-writer and a strong woman in the production. But I feel equally close to both characters — I think a lot of me actually goes through Julie.
Slacker was very much a shot in the dark, but with a high-school comedy and now a romance, you seem to be picking out ever better-ploughed furrows. Isn’t charted territory more perilous than uncharted?
It kind of is, but at the same time it’s kind of neat. It’s like going into an old goldmine with a new process. I can’t say that I’m a big fan of the genre Before Sunrise might be said to belong to, but these films answer a huge need in people, and I was wondering if I could still answer that need, but with my own interpretation of how things really are. I think that what throws people about the film is that the first kiss takes so long: they’re used to it being couple meets/couple immediately all over each other in bed/now we can get on with the story.
There’s a scene I really like where they’re in a record shop listening booth, listening to some awful romantic song, and you can see Hawke’s character thinking, “Am I corny enough to take advantage of this, or should I respect how bad a song it is?”
Right. In most films they would have kissed there, but no one wants to make the first move, so there’s that wonderful awkwardness. That’s how life is, but you don’t tend to see it that much in the movies.
Can you imagine making a film not compressed within a 24·hour timespan?
The next one covers about 85 years! It’s a true story, based on an oral history (Claude Stanush’s The Newton Boys – Portrait of an Outlaw Gang) of these four 1920s Texas share-croppers who become bank robbers. It’ll obviously be much more epic in structure, but I hope it’ll have the same feel of hanging out with these guys in the moment. Epic storytelling can be really distancing and boring; there’s this strange idea that things become grander the further you go back, but I really want to show the 20s as I imagine they might have been.
All your films seem to have a strong autobiographical element, but presumably you didn’t rob that many banks in the 20s, so this must be a bit of a leap.
Not really, because I’ve always found it is very easy to think of myself as a criminal. I don’t know what I would have done had I not been a filmmaker, but I wouldn’t have had any trouble justifying crime in my mind. So on the surface it looks like a complete departure, and it is in a certain way, but in another it isn’t. Before Sunrise was a big departure too — I hope every film is. It keeps you curious.