Joel Stein Talks with the Director and Stars of Before Midnight

Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke, and director Richard Linklater on: the writing process, their thoughts on their characters, and how they shoot a kissing scene

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Despina Spyrou

I sat down with director Richard Linklater and actors Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke to talk about their new movie, Before Midnight, which follows their two characters from Before Sunrise (1995) and Before Sunset (2004). The three also co-wrote Midnight and Sunset. For a very thoughtful, touching essay on the film that ran in the magazine (and is accessible to subscribers), click here.

TIME: In the first film, Before Sunrise, there’s a moment when they first kiss…

JULIE DELPY: Tongue, tonsil, tongue, tonsil…

RICHARD LINKLATER: That was my direction: tongue, tonsil, tongue, tonsil

ETHAN HAWKE: It was one of my worst experiences on a film set. It’s sunset on that beautiful Ferris wheel and we’re supposed to be having this beatific experience. We do this kiss scene, and as soon as Rick goes “Cut,” Julie’s like, “Ewww! He kisses like an adolescent!”

That’s a line in the movie.

HAWKE: We work everything in, buddy.

That’s a particularly painful thing to work in.

HAWKE: It’s not interesting if it’s not painful.

LINKLATER: Ethan is brave that way.

At the beginning of Before Midnight, I made an audible gasp when we find out that Jesse and Celine are still together. After I saw the movie, I was like, “Of course they are; how would they make a movie otherwise?” But was there a discussion about it?

HAWKE: I think the gasp is—it’s two films of wanting these people to be together and they’re not together. It’s weird that Before Sunset is this incredibly romantic film—people cite it as a romantic film—and we never kiss. Who makes a romance where the two characters never even kiss?

LINKLATER: As soon as Before Sunset fades out, the audience gets to fill in. They can go to town with what happens next. That was a good place for us to stop.

HAWKE: A good place for the third one to begin was with the ramifications. When you follow your passion, there are consequences. And the consequences are Hank, Jesse’s son—he’s the one who suffers from Jesse following his heart.

But you could have made the other choice: Jesse could have gone back to his life with his wife and son. Were you all on the same page?

DELPY: We felt like we couldn’t make a third one where they meet again by accident and flirt again. Either they went for it in their 30s, or they didn’t and there’s no film.

HAWKE: If we had had an essential disagreement like you’re talking about, the movie probably wouldn’t have happened. Like we would meet sometimes and somebody would say, “I see Jesse as a war correspondent in Afghanistan.” And the others were like, “That movie isn’t going to get written because you lost your two writing partners.”

So sometimes one of you would have an idea the other two would shoot down?

HAWKE: Some of my best shit was nixed by these morons.

LINKLATER: The first film, we spent a lot of time being polite and trying not to hurt people’s feelings. At this point we have such a shorthand.

DELPY: We don’t get offended.

HAWKE: All three of us have other outlets. So if Julie comes with this awesome scene she wrote, and Rick and I are, like, we don’t like it—

DELPY: —I use it in something else. There’s a line that didn’t make it into [my film] 2 Days in New York that made it into this one, about being inspired and not being able to express yourself because you’re too busy taking care of your kids.

HAWKE: There’s a moment in Before Midnight where Jesse clocks another girls’ ass as she walks by. And when we broke for lunch, this Steadicam operator was upset. He said, “I don’t think Jesse would do that. I just believe in their love more.” I said, “Look, you’re in some romantic box. Part of the idea of making this movie is to make something that’s truly romantic, which means being human. And if Jesse doesn’t find that girl’s ass attractive, he has other problems.”

DELPY: But not everybody’s a pig like you.

HAWKE: My wife was glad we included that, because it’s not some idealized version of a man.

LINKLATER: Your wife is like, “If you can hit that, go ahead.”

Where else did you think these characters might be now?

LINKLATER: Early on, we had this idea of making the movie just a Wednesday in their lives.

HAWKE: We see them shopping, picking up the kids from school.

DELPY: Then at night they meet.

LINKLATER: Then we thought, “That’s kind of grueling.”

HAWKE: The first two films are so much fun; we didn’t want to lose that escape feeling. We didn’t want it to be a movie about how being 40 sucks.

Did you see Judd Apatow’s This is 40?

LINKLATER: Yeah. It’s good. It’s very soulful. It’s rare in Hollywood that anyone even gets that opportunity, that someone uses his clout to say something.

You do, too.

LINKLATER: I should hope for our budget that I can do whatever the hell I want.

Plus Apatow needed jokes.

LINKLATER: But they’re both comedies in a way.

DELPY: It’s pretty funny, the fight in our film.

"Before Midnight" - Los Angeles Premiere

Tommaso Boddi / WireImage / Getty Images

(L-R) Director Richard Linklater, actors Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke attend the “Before Midnight” Los Angeles premiere on May 21, 2013 in Los Angeles

What’s the funny part of the fight?

HAWKE: People laugh a lot. It’s nervous laughter.

DELPY: “How dare he say that?”

HAWKE: It’s funny the way Scenes from a Marriage is funny. Scenes from a Marriage is hysterical but it’s devastating.

So Before Midnight isn’t just a day in the life?

HAWKE: There are days of our lives that are more substantive than other days.

LINKLATER: It’s often by physical circumstances. The emotions of dropping off Hank. The end of a vacation. Summer is over—there a certain tone to that. Your friends have imposed a little vacation on you. It’s like an Obama date night. “You’re going to have a great time!”

HAWKE: I wanted the fight not to have a clear bad guy. Wouldn’t it be interesting to see a movie with two well-meaning people who love each other and they still fight? Okay, he cheated: he’s bad. She cheated: she’s bad. He’s an alcoholic: he’s bad. Life just never feels that way when you’re in it.

DELPY: This idea that the man cheats and the woman isn’t cheating is totally bullshit.

LINKLATER: Our audience might appreciate the honesty. Jesse and Celine are in the statistical norms — 72 percent of women have had some kind of dalliance in their marriage and 70 percent of men. You would think it would be more men, but women are just so smooth about it, you find out ten years later. With men, you find out the next morning, because we’re so clumsy. During the Clinton administration they said that very few marriages in our culture could survive a Whitewater investigation. If you could sink $6 million into detective work for every relationship, you’re going to dig up a blowjob somewhere.

What about when he says, “You’re fucking nuts.” How hurtful is that?

DELPY: What would be hurtful is “You’re fucking boring, I have nothing to say to you.” But you’re crazy? Seriously, would you mind being called crazy? It’s kind of exciting.

HAWKE: Jesse is on the ball enough to know that he’s in love with a dynamic, powerful woman and he’s willing to take the good with the bad.

There are points in marriages where the things you once found charming and cute inevitably become annoying.

HAWKE: What Celine found so charming about Jesse’s little theories—now she’s rolling her eyes when he talks about his books. I have a really good friend who is one of the funniest people in the world and wife just sits there while the whole table is roaring.

LINKLATER: The fact that they eat together, they talk to one another, they make each other laugh, they still seem to want to sleep together—that’s about as good as you’re going to do at a certain point.

Do you like your characters? Would you want to hang out with them?

LINKLATER: Certainly. They’re a fun couple to have at dinner.

DELPY: I don’t know if I’d like her.

HAWKE: That’s not true.

LINKLATER: Of course you would like her.

HAWKE: You’d find her very attractive.

LINKLATER: You’d want to have sex with her.

DELPY: I’d make out with her?

HAWKE: This is how ideas get developed. Just sitting around bullshitting, and somebody makes a joke and we say, “Actually, that’s a good idea.”

DELPY: It’s fun to recreate those nine years. That’s the work we do.

HAWKE: That love scene we have is way more intimate than anything I’d be able to achieve with somebody else. You can’t fake the fact that you’ve actually known someone for 18 years.

DELPY: I can fake it.