Counting the crow’s feet on Ethan Hawke’s face in Richard Linklater’s new anti-romance, Before Midnight, is not a task for the faint-hearted. In the third film made in collaboration with stars Hawke and Julie Delpy, the chatty warmth of Before Sunrise and Before Sunset has mostly eroded, leaving a cracked mirror of Michael Apted’s Up series—a movie that appears every 9 or so years to remind us just how goddamn old (and bitter) we’ve become. On the fourteenth floor of The Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco, where the film has just closed the SF International Film Festival, Delpy and the Dazed and Confused director sink into a beige Victorian sofa. It’s hard to tell if they’re antsy or if they’re working a shtick: Julie, channeling the vox nervosa of her character in the film, is interrogating Richard about his vintage shirt, and Richard seems to be contemplating infinity, or lunch, which is now overdue. Between the banter, we speak with the pair about psychosis, sci-fi and making art in Texas.
How many years did it take to put Before Midnight together?
JD: We spent five years joking about the next one, or even not really talking about it in a real way.
RL: We were on hiatus. It was just jokes, and then at some point it segues into ‘if we were, what would it be’ and we realized pretty early on what it couldn’t be, again, and where we would have to go with it. At some point we get together, very consciously, to create an outline. We had a year of writing independently. In this one everyone was so busy with their own stuff, that we’re going to go do Greece, we’re going to lock everybody in a room and what we usually do for three or four weeks we’re going to do for ten weeks. This was such a task.
JD: I was very dramatic during the writing period of this one.
RL: Dramatic [Laughs]. That might mean something else.
JD: Maybe psychotic?
There’s something about the power of digression that crops up a lot in your work, Richard. A lot of Before Midnight takes place on a walk, or in a car, and you did a TV show called Up To Speed recently with Speed Levitch that had a lot of the same ‘wandering’ quality.
RL: Wow. No one saw Up To Speed. That’s all about digression. I’ve always been obsessed with the way the mind works, the way the mind flows through a day or through ideas, and connects up to different ideas, and I’ve always been obsessed with how words flow, and conversations connect up. These films are very much an exploration of two people trying to communicate, and Ethan and Julie have such great ears, and similar interest in that kind of verbal gymnastics, I guess. So we’re a natural match, the three of us. But that’s definitely an area I’ve always been exploring. I know it’s by definition not “cinematic,” but I’ve always felt it was—it’s what you’re conjuring up, and the right digression can be very illustrative.
Maybe that’s what unites your films—you just want to let people go where they want to go?
RL: We reveal ourselves that way. By running down the street, or chasing someone—whatever the physical actions are, that doesn’t define anyone.
JD: Language is what separates us from… the rest of life.
RL: We’re separate biological entities. The only thing that joins us is our ability to communicate, and be cooperative, and try to be heard and understand each other the best we can.
Will you ever make another movie with less verbal communication? Since Slacker your films have a lot of it.
RL: I think all the films I’m trying to get made are pretty talky. Maybe Bernie, my last film—it’s talky but there are less people talking to each other, they’re communicating with the camera. That would be more behavior driven.
So how important was it to get outside of Texas? Before Sunrise was your first big jump outside of that world.
RL: I think my first time out of the country was 1990. I couldn’t afford it and wasn’t that inclined to travel the world or anything, but I made a film and started going to festivals. That’s why I kind of started to think of that film as having an international element to it, and just the notion of travel. I enjoy it. You know, you’re kind of a citizen of the world [as a filmmaker] in terms of what you do, but I tend to go back there, to Texas. It’s just where my brain works from, just kind of how it plays out.
Speaking of returns, can you talk a little about how Ethan Hawke keeps popping up in your films?
RL: You never know how these things are going to work out. Even after that first film, we were sort of like, “well it would be fun if we could all work together again…”
JD: It’s really when we did Waking Life, we realized that it really doesn’t come along that often, to have this work relationship. Even though I have good work relationships with other people, it’s a different dynamic. It’s not like we’re only happy when we work together but it’s true that it is a fun and special thing that we have.
One of the things that you said yesterday is that you’re both fans of sci-fi. Tell me about your sci-fi fantasies.
RL: We like it enough, intellectually. We’re both Philip K. Dick fans. All my ideas as a kid were sci-fi—I grew up in the space age.
JD: I’ve written sci-fi ever since I was a kid, between sci-fi and romance, like ‘porno sci-fi’! I’ve always liked sci-fi stories. I have a friend that’s a cartoonist, and also an artist, and I think I’ll probably end up doing a graphic novel, and we’ll do a lot of different stories, and she’ll probably put the face of the actor she sexually fantasizes about on the characters and stuff.
RL: Yeah! What is a good sci-fi movie? I’m critical: I like it in theory but there aren’t many good ones. To me the bar is still up there that’ll never be passed with 2001, and I think there are other stops along the way, but I love Blade Runner.
JD: Alien! But there aren’t many really good ones now. I liked Children of Men a lot, part of it.
RL: Hm. There’s so many brilliant ideas in there it’s almost like “where are the brilliant films?”
JD: I think what really wins in 2001—there’s something—you don’t fucking know what it’s about, in the end. It’s always too—it’s trying to be too rooted in reality. Because financiers are businessmen and to make a good sci-fi film you need a lot of money, so you need those businessmen. They would never have understood the end of 2001 if you explained it to them, and they would have killed the film. Too many pragmatic people involved.
RL: My Dick adaptation was so low budget we were able to actually do Philip K. Dick, we were able to get his humor and paranoia, just go all the way within that story and not just grab a core idea and make it a genre film.
That’s what made you feel you were able to do it—you could get the whole thing?
RL: Or try to. Try to capture his tone and his humor. Not just to extract an idea and run with it.
JD: So what are you doing now? I’m like doing the interview: ‘What is your next thing Mr. Linklater?’
RL: I’m finishing a project I’ve been working on for 11 or 12 years, that’s slowly coming along, it’s about growing up. It’s the 12…
JD: 12-Year Movie. I’m his agent.
RL: The next thing I want to do is maybe a college comedy. I’m realizing after Dazed and Confused I came into something that was really intimate, and after this I want to do another big, rambling ensemble. Something I have in mind is a story about college life that I’ve been thinking about for a long time.