Big-budget sequels are usually the bread and butter of the summer movie season (see: Shrek 2 and Spider-Man 2). So it's surprising that one of the most anticipated follow-ups of the season made less than $2 million in its first incarnation.
Richard Linklater's 1995 romance Before Sunrise, beloved by cinephiles and critics but not a box-office smash, relates the chance encounter of two strangers, Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Deply), who share an amazing night in Vienna. The film's second installment, Before Sunset (opening tomorrow in Baltimore), reunites its central characters nine years later in Paris.
Sunset's strange path is a result of major effort by Linklater and the two stars, who conceived of and wrote the film as a team of three.
"We started talking about doing a sequel shortly after the first film came out," says Hawke, "but we couldn't quite figure out the right way to attack it. So we put it away for a couple of years, and then Julie and I did a cameo in [Linklater's 2000 film] Waking Life, and we all realized that we had to try again. We just enjoy working together so much, and we felt like the characters were still alive in us."
Though Hawke, Delpy and Linklater initially struggled over how to approach a second film, they found an answer in their decision to present the characters in real time. This gives the film a powerful sense of immediacy as viewers see Jesse and Celine, older and perhaps somewhat bruised, pick up where they left off nine years ago.
Explains Hawke, "We felt that the characters should change the way we felt we'd changed, which was that so many of the external parts of our lives were different, but the core of us still felt the same. ... You grow older and hopefully your thought process gets richer, and your sight gets deeper, but who you are, and how you experience the world seems to be formed at a young age. We wanted to capture this theory by showing that Jesse and Celine would respond to each other pretty much the same way they had 10 years before."
While the seemingly effortless interchanges between them suggests improvisation, the film was actually tightly scripted. This was because, Hawke said, financial and scheduling constraints required the film to be shot in only 15 days (practically unheard of among feature films). Being under such pressure, says Hawke, "just makes the whole experience incredibly intense. The fire gets really hot - you're working 19-hour days - and in a way that intensity is what brings the intimacy to the film. It was really difficult to do it the way we did, but I wouldn't have wanted to do it any other way. ... It was right for this movie."
It quickly becomes clear that the project was a labor of love. "One of the things I really like about this movie is that it's made very starkly and very simply. Because of that, you are able to bring your own experiences and your own relationships to the film." He concludes that "the movie ends up leaving you with lots of questions."
It may be that same ambiguity that touches those who admire both the original and the sequel - these uncertainties make the films feel like real life and not just fairy-tale romances. And the upside of ambiguity is Hawke says it best: "[Before possibility.
Sunrise] was this incredibly hopeful film that was slapped with a dose of reality at the end, and in [Before Sunset], the characters are dealing with reality all the time, and at the very end they're kind of hit with a dose of hope."
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