PARK CITY, UTAH: In Before Midnight, the latest chapter of Richard Linklater’s romantic chronicle, Jesse (the writer played again by Ethan Hawke) is told of his third novel: “It’s a better book! It’s so much more ambitious!” It plays like an in-joke, but an accurate one; Before Midnight has all the best qualities of Before Sunrise and Before Sunset (a love of conversational dialogue, long takes that value the joy of performance and interaction, gorgeous European locations), yet it is a grander and more complicated achievement. There are some supporting characters this time, for example, and a fuller sense of the protagonists’ lives outside the narrow timeframe. But it also reflects, beautifully, how romance in your 40s is a very different beast from romance in your 20s, or 30s.
It was, initially, an unlikely prospect for a series. As co-writer/director Richard Linklater explained at a Sundance screening Monday, “It was somewhere between the first and second film, probably five or six years later, that Ethan and Julie (Delpy) and I started thinking maybe Jesse and Celene were still alive, and there may be something to still explore there. The difference being, back then, no one was clamoring for a second one. No one really wanted a second film, except Julie, Ethan, and I. I think we were the lowest-grossing film to ever spawn a sequel!” But after Before Sunset, “ever since then, the last nine years, and the way that ends, has begged the question: are you gonna do another one?”
Your humble film editor wouldn’t dream of revealing where the new film finds the duo, and if Jesse did, in fact, miss that plane. But the turns that their story has taken in the new film are unexpected but relatable, furthering the hope that Linklater and his two actor/co-writers will continue to revisit the characters every nine years, in a kind of American narrative equivalent to Michael Apted’s Up documentaries. “Each film is not really about time,” Linklater says, “we’re just picking up, but you put them together and yeah, it’s clearly a comment on aging and maturing and all that.” That’s also the theme of the mysterious “Untitled 12-Year Project” on his IMDb page, slated for a 2015 release. I asked him about that film, but he was cagey on the details: “We’re doing this film over a long period of time. It’s a narrative, it’s not a documentary. It’s about a kid going growing up.”
Inevitably, the last question of the post-screening Q&A was if we could expect to check in with Jesse and Celine in another nine years. Linklater wouldn’t commit, but did mention that they’re already getting title ideas for entries further down the road: “Guy came up to me and said, ‘Oh, I’ve got a title, but it’s not for this one. Y’know, when they’re in the retirement home, it could be Before the Early Bird Special.’”
Before Midnight is playing this week at the Sundance Film Festival.