Before Midnight: A Conversation about our Film of the Year

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Louis Black, the editor-in-chief and co-founder of The Austin Chronicle, has quite a history with Richard Linklater, the co-writer and director of our 2013 Film of the Year, Before Midnight. In addition to being a longtime friend of Linklater, Black is the co-founder, with him and others, of the Austin Film Society, and the co-founder of South by Southwest, where many of Linklater’s films have premiered. He even appeared in the Linklater’s feature debut, Slacker. Michael Dunaway, in addition to being the movies editor for Paste, is the producer (with Tara Wood) and director of the forthcoming documentary 21 Years: Richard Linklater featuring Ethan Hawke, Matthew McConaughey, Julie Delpy, Jack Black, Keanu Reeves, Billy Bob Thornton, and many others.

Michael Dunaway: So the last time we spoke, that day on the back porch of the Austin Four Seasons, we were admiring together the first two Before films, and you had not seen the third. So I guess I’ll just start out by asking you: what’d you think?

Louis Black: You know, it was remarkable, a completely pleasurable and satisfying experience. I think this is one of the great trilogies in film. It’s one of the most ambitious, one of the most sophisticated. And I hope it’s not just a trilogy. I mean, you know, I’ve talked to Rick asking if there’s going to be a fourth, or maybe even a fifth, and he doesn’t even answer the question. But the third one kind of began organically, and hopefully there’ll be more. As Rick likes to point out, few films have ever performed as weak commercially as these first two to lead to sequels. You know, in the face of all odds, these films turned out three remarkable films.

I think it’s really a culmination. These films are really about modern love, what romance and love and relationships are really like in the world. I think so few films really tackle that. Most Hollywood films, most films period, the actual films, you know, have a very sugarcoated version of love and romance. And a lot of them, the vast majority of films that are about romance, culminate with the couple coming together, which is really when the hard work and the real complications set in. And this film more than any other deals with what happens then.

You know, there’s a magical meeting in Before Sunrise, there’s a more troubling but very sophisticated romantic reunion in Before Sunset. You have that magic moment where the couple walk hand-in-hand off into the sunset together, and at the end of Before Sunset we don’t know if they’re walking off into the sunset together, although we’re probably hoping they are. Well, what happens? Where are they at 10 years later?

I think this film is really amazing in that it deals with kind of a realistic romance. You know, I think there’s only a handful of films that deal with that afterglow. Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris is a remarkable film in that it really deals with the mystification of sexuality and romance and then demystifies it, brutally demystifies it, and I think Nicholas Ray’s In a Lonely Place is another film that does that. And Preston Sturges’ Palm Beach Story in many ways is a really kind of sophisticated take. In Palm Beach Story the marriage falls apart and then they come back together without illusion, like at the end of the movie, without illusion. And without, and you know it’s not a Hollywood, sunset, fireworks ending. It’s a very realistic love story in a lot of ways, if you can call depressing stories realistic.

But there are very few films like that, and I think that in so many ways this not only belongs in that august company, but in a lot of ways it’s even more ambitious. On the one hand it doesn’t mystify romance, which so often happens, and on the other hand it doesn’t totally make it a tragedy. You know, there are a lot of films where the whole film is about the horrors of romantic relationships, of monogamous relationships or you know any kind of coupling: male-female, male-male. There are a lot of films that have no hope. But this is really an ambitious film, and an important film that’s about what an incredible struggle being in a relationship is. And anyone who’s been in a relationship will talk about that, but it’s rarely portrayed in fiction. I mean usually fiction—film and books and theater—its one extreme or the other. There are a lot of works that don’t mystify romance but they show it to be a stark tragedy, a horror story in ways…you know, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, if you will. And Rick is so much more mature and sophisticated than that. It’s really an ambitious attempt to talk about how two people who love each other and are together in a committed relationship deal with the kind of ongoing issues and problems of two individuals trying to be together.

Dunaway: I love what you said in our documentary about the shot at the end of The Graduate when they’re sitting in the bus, and that this movie is about what happens next after that.

Black: Right it’s that, “what happens after they get…” I find that about a lot of movies. The Graduate is so great because there’s that great shot—and I timed it! I remembered it as being like, five minutes long and it’s only 30 seconds or 45 seconds.

Dunaway: Feels five minutes.

Black: Yeah, because there they are in the back of the bus and the whole film has been building to this. They’re in the back of the bus, they don’t know each other, he’s just taken her away from being married, she’s changed her whole life and they’re both as uncomfortable as they can possibly be, and this is the future. You know? And in a way Nichols gets to cop out—I mean, I think it’s a great film and a great moment, but he doesn’t have to say what happens when they get off the bus stop.

Dunaway: Right, right.

Black: And, you know, Rick does.

Dunaway: Yeah. Exactly.

Black: And it’s not just Rick. Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy and Rick Linklater together make this movie, and they each bring their life experiences to it and they push each other, and it’s not easy. It’s not an easy film. In a lot of ways I like Before Sunset more in that it’s more cathartic. But it’s not any more honest, and this is just a remarkably honest, adult film.

And it’s entertaining as hell, to get to speak to these people is a privilege and a pleasure, but it’s also very real, you don’t feel like there’s any cheating going on. And you know you don’t think at the end that they’re going to wake up in the morning and there’s going to be bluebirds outside of the window pleasantly singing. They’re going to have to face another day and they’re going to have to go through what they went through again. It’s not a culmination—it’s a journey.

Dunaway: No you’re right, the guys on the Filmspotting podcast talked about that a little bit and I thought they did a really good job talking about that, about how it’s a happy ending that’s somehow not completely happy—it’s a hard happiness, it’s a difficult happiness, you know? Its not denying any of those issues or thinking that any of them have gone away because Ethan told a cute story, because Jesse told a cute story.

Black: No, absolutely. I mean they both know, during that whole really torturous, long third chapter—you know, the final third of the film where they’re in conflict with each other—they both at different points try and resolve things because they know they have to work at it. And they’re just not ready to do it at the same time, until the end. And it’s not climactic. I mean in the film it’s climactic, but within their lives and their relationship it’s not climactic.

We don’t think that everything’s going to be different. They’ll still have to work at it. Or you know, they still have issues to resolve and they still have to work at their relationship, but it’s exciting at the ending that they both accept that their relationship is worth the amount of work they have to put into it, and the amount of energy, and the amount of strife.

Dunaway: Yeah it’s an incredibly realistic yet incredibly optimistic film in a way. It combines those two in a way we very seldom see combined.

Black: I actually, I mean, one of the things I rant at a lot is that I think the cultural body of work now is very negative. It assumes the best is behind us, the worst is yet to come—science fiction is very rarely optimistic, it’s more often prophecies of doom.

Dunaway: Sure.

Black: You know, so many films, you know, are a dark, maybe black comedic, maybe just dark in that, you know, the world is a shrinking place. And I think there are very few directors who I would say are optimistic. I think Jonathan Demme is one of them, and I think Rick Linklater is one of them. And I think that when you look at Rick’s films, none of them are naïve. I once was with Jonathan and told him that, you know, this was my feeling, and he didn’t want to use the word “optimism.” He said that you could be accepting of the world as a troubled and troubling place, where there are incredible difficulties and injustices, and know that survival—living—is a real struggle, but still feel that there’s a possibility, there are possibilities, that our world can be better, that communication can be achieved.

And that’s not, you know, again, that’s not closure. It isn’t, you don’t hit the Yellow Brick Road, it doesn’t suddenly turn from black-and-white to Technicolor, it’s…you know, we’re adults in a very tough world, but there are possibilities. And as much cause as there is for the overwhelming pessimism you see in so many films, and so many films I think really are pessimistic. And again, “optimism” and “pessimism” are weak words that get at what I’m trying to convey. I think there is something that says, you know, that we have options, that there are possibilities and that in no way, you know, denudes life of its conflicts and contradictions and difficulties, but that that could all be in service of moving forward.

Dunaway: You know, I don’t know if you agree with this or not, but I said to some people, “I think that Before Midnight is the best of the three films,” and they kind of raised their eyebrows and said, “How can you say that?” But it only makes sense—of course, for us all, Before Sunrise was our first love, that’s when we fell in love with Jesse and Céline, so of course we all just have this special place in our heart for it. But the thing is, Before Sunrise is a very young guy in Rick, and two even younger people in Ethan and Julie, analyzing love. And then Before Sunset is a slightly older guy and a slightly older couple coming together and sharing their thoughts and wisdom and feelings about love. And now Before Midnight is a middle-aged guy and a middle-aged couple who are bringing to bear everything they’ve learned and all of their insight. I mean it only makes sense that the possibility would be there, even the probability, that the series would continue to get better as they continue to get older wiser and more insightful, right? Does that make sense?

Black: You know, I agree with you in principle. I think it’s the most ambitious, the most complex, the most mature of the three. I have to admit, I have a weakness for Before Sunset like nobody’s business. You know if I’m being honest—intellectually, I probably, totally agree with you. But emotionally, Before Sunset—when I was a student of course I liked Before Sunrise.

When they showed Before Sunset at South by Southwest, and I went to see it, and this was back—now I go to see lots of movies, because I’ve you know been kind of kicked upstairs, it’s so big that now there’s not much for me to do—but back then I rarely went to movies and I went to see it because it was Rick’s new film, and it just blew my mind. I just spent like two days babbling, and unfortunately both Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy showed up during the—Ethan was there and Julie came like the next day, and Lee Daniel was there and Sandra Adair—so I babbled to all of the people involved in making the movie, you know? I was just babbling because it just ripped the top of my head off. I permanently embarrassed myself. And again, Before Midnight was cathartic and a great cinematic experience. But I just have a special spot in my heart for Before Sunset. So I’m not disagreeing with you in any way, it’s just, you know, there’s a way certain films ring your bell.

Dunaway: Well, I’m going to ask you an impossible question, which we cheated on at PASTE, because we gave our, we actually gave our No. 1 “Performance of the Year” to Oscar Isaac for Inside Llewyn Davis, but No. 2 was a tie between Ethan and Julie So the impossible question is: do you take—for this movie only—do you take Ethan’s performance or Julie’s performance?

Black: You know I feel that’s like saying “Do you like Laurel or Hardy better?” There’s no Laurel without Hardy there’s no Hardy without Laurel. And you take either one of them out of it and, you know, you don’t have the genius that is Laurel and Hardy. Because take either one of them out of it you don’t have the genius that is Delpy and Hawke, and I really mean that. You know, I thought one of the triumphs of Before Sunset is that so much of that movie is Julie. And so much of it—half—is Ethan. And for such a long run in that movie of that movie he’s got that look on his face, which I know only too well, that kind of frozen smile when you’re with a woman and you’re thinking, “I may get laid! If I persevere, I may get laid!”

Dunaway: “Don’t blow this, don’t blow this!”

Black: Yeah exactly! Like, “I’m not 100% sure but I’m going along with this right now, and I haven’t given up hope!” And it just strikes me as this most remarkable performance because I know that feeling so well, and you so rarely see it in film, and there’s a lot of other things in that movie that I don’t want to take anything away from, but you know in that movie he’s—a lot of times he’s the catcher and she’s the pitcher.

Dunaway: Yeah, yeah.

Black: But in this movie you know they’re playing catch. Each one is catching and pitching. Again, I’m not taking anything away from Before Sunset, but in this movie more than in so many movies I think it’s impossible to judge between the two of them.

Dunaway: If they do the next movie, there is something that I am dying to have Rick, to have them, explore, and it was kind of implicitly brought up in this film. But I want to see it, as much as I love Jesse and Céline, I want to see them deal with something. I want to see them deal with the fact that their relationship, this beautiful relationship that we all love, started—or continued at least in the second movie—with Jesse cheating on his wife. You know?

Black: Yes!

Dunaway: So what I think would be perfect for the next movie would be for the kids, they come back for the kids’, whatever it is, college graduation ceremony or whatever it is, so it’s in New York or Chicago—it’s Chicago that they live in right?

Black: Yeah.

Dunaway: And they have to deal with the ex-wife. They have to deal with the kids. You know, and maybe the kid is in some kind of romantic thing, and they’re seeing like, the multi-generational aspect of this. I don’t think they’re bad people and I don’t think they should suffer, but I do think that it would give this sort of moral center to the saga. To have them confront that, even though good comes out of it, that this started with something that was wrong, you know? I don’t know, what do you think? Am I being too prescriptive or moralistic?

Black: No, I think you’re being fascinating. I mean I’m totally—I’m thinking about it, and you’re right. And, I mean, in a way they make it easy because the relationship between Jesse and his wife is so troubled, and it’s clearly doomed. But he’s still with her, and yet he goes back to this woman he’s always loved. So I think it’s fascinating, and I think that dealing with that would be fascinating. But a long time ago, you know, I know enough filmmakers that I learn whenever I beg for suggestions along those lines, they roll their eyes and they tap me gently on the top of my head and send me on my childish way.

Dunaway: “Oh, you’re so cute, little critic.”

Black: Yeah! You know, I think that in terms of writing an essay on the trilogy that would be a great and fascinating point of view, and I think it’s, among the three of them, if that’s the way they decided to tackle it, that would be exciting. But I’ve come to fully appreciate all my shortcomings, and one of them is narrative exploring. You know, I do best sticking to other people’s maps.

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