Intimate odyssey: Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy and Richard Linklater reconnect in 'Before Midnight'

Edmund Kean, the stage Hamlet, and Edmund Gwenn, the screen Santa, died 126 years apart, with the same last words on their lips: “Dying is easy, comedy is hard.”

Edmund Kean, the stage Hamlet, and Edmund Gwenn, the screen Santa, died 126 years apart, with the same last words on their lips: “Dying is easy, comedy is hard.”

The adage dies hard because comedy is hard, and nothing sets Richard Linklater’s eyes rolling faster than the idea that his film trilogy—1995’s Before Sunrise, 2004’s Before Sunset and now, come Memorial Day 2013, Sony Pictures Classics’ Before Midnight—seem like lighthearted soufflé frolics for the writer-director and his co-scripting stars, Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy. Every nine years, a vacation for three: 9 Up, anybody?

“Well,” the Texas filmmaker drawls thoughtfully, reluctant to give into that fantasy, “it’s definitely a working vacation. I love all the locations we have shot these three films in—Vienna, Paris, now Greece—and it’s great. You really get to know a place, working there—you know, the crew and the life there. It’s hardly just a ‘vacation.’

“This one was tough, though, man—this was one of the hardest films to make,” he is not reluctant at all to admit. “For something where the goal is to seem effortless, you really had to dredge up a lot. Psychically, it was kind of tough on all three of us.”

Much of the challenge comes from following their own sublimely romantic acts at this late date, when reality dims the glow of a relationship. It’s post-Happy Ending time.

But look at the places they have been, the sights they have seen! Jesse and Celine, a pair of young, recently broken hearts (he from the U.S., she from France), meet on moving, neutral turf—a train from Budapest. They disembark in Vienna, take in as many of the city’s pleasures and share as many intimacies as they can before he hops a returning flight to America Before Sunrise. Dutifully, he catches the plane.

Nine years later, they cross paths in a Paris bookstore, where he is promoting a bestseller he wrote about their night together in Vienna. He’s now unhappily married with child—a four-year-old son—and she’s an amorously uncommitted environmentalist. They do Paris in the short time they have Before Sunset when he must fly back to home and hearth and unhappiness. It’s an all-nighter, ending in her apartment with her singing a waltz she wrote about their brief encounter. Then she brings out the big guns—a Nina Simone CD—and dances by herself to “Just in Time,” playfully purring, “Baby, you are gonna miss that plane.” He does, willingly. Sweet fadeout—and an Academy Award nomination in the Best Adapted Screenplay category.

The die was cast then. Now comes a sour, sobering fade-in for our forty-somethings who seem to have lost (or mislaid) that lovin’ feeling. They’re still together, unmarried with twin daughters, and that son (now 13) Jeff left behind with his ex.

Before Midnight, which is less of a deadline than it was in the two earlier films, begins with carting the son to the airport for his plane back to the States, and the couple continuing with the remnants of their Greek vacation. Hawke seems more relaxed and laid-back here than he has in many a flick, rolling back into place with relative ease after every midlife body-blow, some administered by Delpy, who scares up the major amount of aggravation in Chapter Three, fearing (needlessly) that Hawke’s tardy, guilty devotion to the son he has neglected will wreck their union.

“Her character is the less happy member of the story,” Linklater allows. “Celine is a little more conflicted. Whatever they’ve got, life seems to be working for him better than for her. That’s what happens sometimes in relationships after a while.”

The creating and filming of the third movie put stress on an authentic and genuine friendship. “We’ve had some wonderful experiences together, and now we’re sort of at ‘What keeps this band together?’” Linklater quips. “We realized, ‘Oh, here’s what we can do together: We create well together.’ We really are friends with each other, even though it’s an effort to work on these scripts and to workshop them. We really support and push one another. The actors have to work really hard to set that tone where people think they’re just making it up, but hard work goes into it.”

Case in point: a protracted single-shot of the two in a long car ride doing low-level bickering back and forth that is so subtle and naturalistic, they seem to be adlibbing.

Of course, it’s scripted,” the director says. “When you improvise, you tend to wax the same thought over and over. Comedy improvs can be funny in a performance way, but film is so precise. All I can say is, in these three films, there has not been one improvised line. That’s not the way we work—yet we want it to feel made up in the moment. The goal is the effect on the viewer. That’s why I think the power of a long take—on some level, although no one is thinking about this technically—has to affect the audience as real. That’s what we’re going for, and it’s hard on the actors.”

This trio of romances seems to stand out from other Linklaters with more heart and humanity, but he professes not to have invested in them more emotionally. “I think I have the exact same feeling toward every scene that I do, love scene or not,” he insists. “I never separate them. It’s all one piece. I feel that way about every film.

“When you make a love story, it’s an outlet—that’s a given. We all feel this way. We’re all expressing ourselves in other forms, so with these films, there’s a part of ourselves that we can put in them that’s not appropriate for other movies.”

The inevitable affection the director and his two stars feel toward these characters is almost palpable with these pictures. “How could it not be?” Linklater asks. “I think the three of us obviously do care about these characters or we wouldn’t continue.

“With every movie I ever made, I think the characters are still alive in some parallel world. I think of them—what they might be doing—just as I would an old friend, so it’s weird in these films that we actually, physically, manifest Jesse and Celine every so often, and here they are again. The way these stories unfold, it lends itself to this kind of accidental trilogy (now life) project—or whatever it is that we’re doing here.

“We have to retrospectively go, ‘What have they been doing the last nine years?’—really talk about nine years of a relationship. We had to start with what happened after the last film faded out on Julie across the room being Nina Simone and take it from there and talk about exactly what happened to them since—the repercussions of that. If you follow your passions in this world, there’s always a price to be paid.”

In another nine years, Jesse and Celine will be 50, a milestone that almost writes its own script. “We’ll see,” Linklater says hesitantly. “Who knows? Nine years is how it worked out the last two times—by coincidence. There’s no Mayan calendar thing.

“We have five years of just jokes and nothing to say. Then, we sort of realize Jesse and Celine are at a new place in their lives, and we’ve got a few years to gestate where that might be. The last two films had similar trajectories toward getting made, so if we had to predict the future, I wouldn’t be surprised if five or six years from now—if we’re all willing and able—there’ll be something to say about this new phase of life.”

Of course, one roadblock looms about the title for their fourth outing: Bertrand Tavernier and Davide Ferrario have already taken ’Round Midnight and After Midnight. Linklater is unfazed: “We haven’t been After anything. We’ve always been Before. Maybe next we’ll jump to seasons. We’ll cross that bridge when we have to.

“Actually,” he says, a smile forming, “I’ve been thinking about jumping ahead four installments and making the last one a comedic remake of Amour. What do you think?”