AUSTIN--Early into Before Sunrise, as Jesse (the traveling American played by Ethan Hawke) and Celine (the French student, portrayed by Julie Delpy) share their first moments on Eurail bound for Vienna, Hawke's character explains an idea for a cable access program that would run 24 hours a day for an entire year, chronicling that day in the lives of various people from around the world. He is energized by the idea of finding the excitement in the mundane, revealing the dramatic in the everyday.
Celine nods along, every now and then expressing her doubts about a concept that relies so much on slogging through the minutiae (watching someone wake up, brush his teeth, go to the bathroom, and on and on) for so little reward (maybe some sex).
Such a concept lies at the heart of Before Sunrise, which is basically 100 minutes out of 14 hours these two characters spend walking through the streets of Vienna doing nothing more than talking--about God and dead grandmothers, about love and life, most often about nothing at all. It's as if Jesse's idea has sprung to in animate life, and the audience is left to filter out what's interesting and what is stultifyingly dull.
And, indeed, Before Sunrise's director, Richard Linklater, is aware of the pitfalls of making a film driven solely by the dialogue of two characters. He thought about the concept for five years before attempting it, and even then, had to rely upon the input of a friend and his two leads to flesh out an idea that is essentially hung upon the barest of bones.
So Linklater describes his $3 million film as an "experimental feature" that succeeds or fails upon the audience's interest in Celine and Jesse and what they have to say.
"[The film] could be really, really mundane and boring and all those things," Linklater says, sitting in the lobby of the Four Seasons Hotel a few hours before Sunrise makes its Austin premiere. "It really comes down to if you're fascinated by these two people--just the way you would be in your real life if you met someone on that six-hour plane flight and talked to that person and became interested in them. Time goes really quickly and you are fascinated.
"But if you put a camera on that and filmed it for six hours, it's kind of a boring film with a few high points maybe, so it was pretty tough to..." He pauses for a moment. "It was all about pacing and interest levels in the characters. I mean, it was a big experiment."
Linklater has made a career out of such an experiment: his first two films, Slacker (the day-in-the-life-of experiment set in Austin) and Dazed and Confused (set during the last day of high school in 1976 Austin), dropped the viewer in and out of the lives of myriad characters, whether it was the girl selling Madonna's pap smear in Slacker or the perpetually stoned Slater in Dazed. If both films weren't particularly plot-driven, they were propelled by their characters--their eccentricities, their humor, their actions and inactions, their struggle just to get through a world they figured was fucked from the get-go.
These characters--such as Dazed's Randy "Pink" Floyd, the star quarterback torn between his allegiance to his stoner pals and the football team--lived as though yesterday had never happened. They weren't cynical about the past--simply distrustful of nostalgia or romanticizing anything. "If I start to look back on these as the best days of mah life," Floyd tells his pals, "somebody shoot me."
As Linklater says in retrospect, those films were about "suppressed emotions...people who can't articulate their emotions."
If his first two films were about emotional mutes, then Before Sunrise is the tale of two kids who won't shut the hell up. Linklater, as director, has become a puppy-love romantic whose vision has been clouded by tears of weepy joy; after all, he shot Before Sunrise in Vienna because, as he says, "I had a crush on a girl I met over there and, hey, I needed to go back."
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"Not everyone will like the film, of course," Linklater says unapologetically. "But I think if you're really interested in people...It's kinda like when [Celine] is saying if God exists, it's not in us but in this space in between us. I think I was just interested in that space in between. It's kind of how I see life. We all intersect with each other, and it's what you do with that time or that energy or that space. I just thought that was an inherently interesting set-up because there's romance in the air."
Linklater had actually wanted to make Before Sunrise before Dazed, but he never quite had a grasp on the concept--other than it being Slacker with just two people, as he is fond of pointing out. Until, ultimately, Linklater hit upon the idea that it be the "kind of movie that is everything not shown in every other movie--the outtakes from everything else that you did."
Which boils down to a whole lot of nothing--just like life, unless it's your own.