25 years after ‘Before’
Inside the making of an indie classic
No one knew how “Before Sunrise” would end. In addition to leaving the audience on a cliffhanger — would the visiting American Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and the French student Céline (Julie Delpy) meet again after one night of passionate conversation on the streets of Vienna? — the filmmakers themselves were at a loss until the last minute.
“We shot in chronological order and worked on the script every weekend throughout the shoot,” director and co-writer Richard Linklater said. “We went pretty far into this thinking they weren’t going to plan to meet again, and the night before, we were up until 3 in the morning rewriting the final scene.”
Made for just $2.5 million, “Before Sunrise” opened the 1995 Sundance Film Festival and formed a collaborative partnership among Linklater, Hawke and Delpy that led to two sequels, “Before Sunset” (2004) and “Before Midnight” (2013), and decades of friendship.
In honor of the first film’s 25th anniversary, the stars and director talked about making the unconventional romance. Here are excerpts from those conversations.
The idea for the movie came to Linklater during a night spent with a woman he met in a Philadelphia toy store in 1989. Years later, he would learn she had died in a motorcycle accident just before “Before Sunrise” began filming.
Richard Linklater: This girl was flirting with me while I waited for my sister (to finish shopping), so I wrote a little note like, “Hey, I’m in town for one night if you want to hang out.” Somewhere in the night I said to her, “I want to make a film about this. Just this feeling.” That’s really all it was trying to ever capture — that rush of meeting someone and that undercurrent of flirtation and romance.
It took a bicoastal casting call and more than six months to find the perfect leads.
Linklater: It wasn’t clear if it was going to be a European male and American female (or vice versa). In the first draft, we named the characters Chris and Terry because both are kind of genderless. It was that open.
Anthony Rapp invited me to see a play he was in with Ethan Hawke in New York. I had never met Ethan, but at that moment, he was the biggest star in his age range. I ended up at a bar with him after the play.
Ethan Hawke: We hung out until 4 a.m. After that, Rick sent me the script, and I thought he was offering me the part. I was really excited and had all these questions, and I realized after talking to my agents that he was not offering — he was asking me to audition with about 10,000 other people.
Linklater: Julie was the second actor I met on the first day of our big LA casting session. I remember liking her, and her resume was impressive. She’d worked all over Europe. She was just getting started in the U.S., but she immediately went to the top of the list.
Julie Delpy: I like the idea of people meeting over one night and falling in love. (Linklater) clearly stated that he wanted the actors involved in the writing, and I liked that. It wasn’t just a part.
Hawke: Meeting Julie was like meeting a character from a novel, like Anna Karenina or something. She’s a very deep person. I’d never felt so American and so dumb.
Delpy: He was like a puppy, so young and sweet. He hates that, but really he had a beautiful naive quality about him. I mean naive in a good way, naive but very smart at the same time.
Delpy, Hawke and Linklater headed to Vienna for a three-week intensive workshop ahead of the summer 1994 shoot and continued revising the script throughout 25 days of filming.
Hawke: Revising is way too mild of a word. Rick wanted to make a movie about living in the moment. And to do that we were all going to have to live in the moment together to create the movie. For every scene in there, we wrote, like, 17 that didn’t make the cut.
Delpy: It was intense, and a lot of my personal feelings went into it. I was an extremely romantic person, very pure and full of dreams. The writing was very organic. The guys would listen to me as I was really the only woman in the room, especially when we got to Vienna.
Linklater: To this day, they don’t really get the credit as actors because everybody thinks they’re improvising.
Regular trains were used to film Jesse and Céline’s meet-cute, as well as Céline’s sendoff in the closing scene.
Linklater: It was hell. We rode the trains from Vienna to Salzburg and back for three days to get the beginning scene and the shots out the windows. You’re good when the train reaches a certain speed, but if it’s jumping around, you’re screwed.
Hawke: My stepfather had given me this burgundy turtleneck, and I was in love with it. I don’t know why. And then I just immediately regretted it because it was really hot. What idiot thinks they look good in a turtleneck in summer in Vienna?
Linklater: The very last shot of the movie, when Julie walks onto the train, we had that timed to the second and we got one chance to do it. It was like, the train’s going to leave here at 8:37:30. I’m going to say action at 8:20. She’s going to get on a non-moving train. And then when she gets to her seat, the train is going to be moving. It was tense, but we rehearsed the hell out of it and it worked.
Delpy: It was insanely hot. I had not slept in days because we shot (mostly) at night. I remember being miserable. It was the end of the shoot, and I felt I was never going to see Rick and Ethan again.
When the pair almost kiss while listening to Kath Bloom’s “Come Here” in the record store booth, Delpy and Hawke’s reactions were authentic.
Linklater: That’s the only time I withheld anything from the cast. The lyrics were in the script, but they had never actually heard the song. So you can see them really listening because they’d never heard that yearning, creaky thing in Kath Bloom’s voice that’s so moving.
Hawke: It’s probably my single favorite take of anything I’ve been involved with.
Delpy: That was really special. It was like magic — each time I felt Ethan looking away, I would look at him and vice versa. I almost fell in love with him right there, but then Rick said cut.
Jesse and Céline’s first kiss takes place on Vienna’s Prater Ferris wheel at sunset, but was difficult in more ways than one.
Linklater: We tried to shoot it at sunset, but they would only stop the Ferris wheel for 10 minutes, and then we’d have to go around and do it again. We had three different light levels by the time we finished. So we went back a week later and reshot that in the morning when they let us stop it for an hour. When you see their first kiss, that was shot in the a.m.
Hawke: Julie is afraid of heights. Try making out with somebody who’s absolutely petrified. It was challenging, and I don’t think she was terribly impressed — she’d been with a lot more interesting men than me.
Linklater intentionally left several elements of the film up to the audience’s imagination, namely did Jesse and Céline have sex?
Linklater: Technically, you could see it any way you want. If you look closely, she’s dressed a little differently. So if you really do the math, you go OK, that dress had to come off to get that shirt off. Something happened. I think all the hints are there.
Every nine years, there’s been a sequel, but it’s unlikely a fourth film would arrive on schedule.
Hawke: There was a feeling I had in my gut when we finished “Before Midnight” that I’d never had before, which was that we were done. “Sunrise,” “Sunset,” “Midnight” is one work in its own strange way. That doesn’t mean there won’t be another work, like an epilogue. I would be curious about an “After” series, about something where you really deal with the second half of your life.
Linklater: Maybe we’ll wait until they’re in their 80s. I’m not ruling that out.
Director Richard Linklater, center, works with Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke on the set of 1995’s “Before Sunrise.”
Linklater, Delpy and Hawke reunited in 2013 for the release of the third film in the trilogy, “Before Midnight.”