‘Before Sunrise’: The Making of an Indie Classic

No one knew how “Before Sunrise” would end. In addition to leaving the audience on a cliffhanger — would the visiting American Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and the French student Céline (Julie Delpy) meet again after one night of passionate conversation on the streets of Vienna? — the filmmakers themselves were at a loss until the last minute.

“We shot in chronological order and worked on the script every weekend throughout the shoot,” the director and co-writer Richard Linklater said. “We went pretty far into this thinking they weren’t going to plan to meet again, and the night before, we were up until 3 in the morning rewriting the final scene.”

Made for just $2.5 million, “Before Sunrise” opened the 1995 Sundance Film Festival and formed a collaborative partnership between Linklater, Hawke and Delpy that led to two sequels, “Before Sunset” (2004) and “Before Midnight” (2013), and decades of friendship.

In honor of the first film’s 25th anniversary, I interviewed the stars and creators about making the unconventional indie romance. Here are edited excerpts from those conversations.

The idea for the movie came to Linklater during a night spent with a woman he met in a Philadelphia toy store in 1989. Years later, he would learn she had died in a motorcycle accident just before “Before Sunrise” began filming.

RICHARD LINKLATER This girl was flirting with me while I waited for my sister [to finish shopping], so I wrote a little note like, “Hey, I’m in town for one night if you want to hang out.” Somewhere in the night I said to her, “I want to make a film about this. Just this feeling.” That’s really all it was trying to ever capture — that rush of meeting someone and that undercurrent of flirtation and romance.

In 1993, he asked the actress Kim Krizan, who had appeared in his Texas-set films “Slacker” and “Dazed and Confused,” if she would help write the screenplay.

KIM KRIZAN (co-writer) I’d never written a script before, but he’d read my master’s thesis on Anaïs Nin and thought I could write.

LINKLATER In my previous films, I felt the male view overwhelmed. So my absolute goal was to have a strong female perspective. Kim was the kind of person you’d run into and within 30 seconds you’re talking about something substantial. I liked that.

KRIZAN We were thinking about the direction it could go, and I said, Well, I’ve met really interesting people traveling on trains in Europe. I’d had fantastic conversations where I knew I’d never see them again. Things tend to happen in the space of a day in Linklater stories, so that instantly created a structure.

Credit…Castle Rock Entertainment, via Photofest
Credit…Castle Rock Entertainment, via Photofest

LINKLATER It was a wonderful collaboration over an intense 11 days, but I always knew the process would eventually include the two actors. So I was upfront that this was a template of a script, and it was going to be deepened later.

Linklater considered a version set in America, but funding and an interest from Castle Rock Entertainment allowed them to shoot abroad.

LINKLATER On one hand, the movie could be set anywhere. I thought, if I don’t have any money, there’s a train station in San Antonio and we could do this close to home. But I ended up going to the Vienna film festival with “Dazed” and found out they had some European subsidy money. And then Martin Shafer read the script and was like, “Hey, this could be good.”

MARTIN SHAFER (a co-founder of Castle Rock Entertainment) The script came to me and it was very short. I think only about 35 pages. It had a lot of dialogue but was more of a blueprint. It was so different from the so-called romantic comedies of the time, which were often very contrived, and it had such a naturalistic feel to it.

It took a bicoastal casting call and more than six months to find the perfect leads.

LINKLATER That was the biggest casting choice imaginable. It wasn’t clear if it was going to be a European male and American female [or vice versa]. In the first draft, we named the characters Chris and Terry because both are kind of genderless. It was that open.

JUDY HENDERSON (casting director) I kept all the Polaroids because so many of the people who auditioned are superstars today. We saw Gwyneth Paltrow and Jennifer Aniston, before she was on “Friends.”

LINKLATER Anthony Rapp invited me to see a play he was in with Ethan Hawke in New York. I had never met Ethan, but at that moment, he was the biggest star in his age range. I ended up at a bar with him after the play.

ETHAN HAWKE (Jesse) We hung out until 4 a.m. After that, Rick sent me the script, and I thought he was offering me the part. I was really excited and had all these questions, and I realized after talking to my agents that he was not offering — he was asking me to audition with about 10,000 other people.

LINKLATER Julie was the second actor I met on the first day of our big L.A. casting session. I remember liking her, and her résumé was impressive. She’d worked all over Europe. She was just getting started in the U.S., but she immediately went to the top of the list.

JULIE DELPY (Céline) I like the idea of people meeting over one night and falling in love. Linklater clearly stated that he wanted the actors involved in the writing, and I liked that. It wasn’t just a part.

HENDERSON In the end, it came down to two women and two men: Ethan, Julie, Michael Vartan [“Never Been Kissed”] and Sadie Frost [“Bram Stoker’s Dracula”]. I think they went with Julie because she was wonderful, and they thought the French accent gave a definite feeling that Jesse was meeting someone who was not from his world. And with Michael and Ethan, it was a tough choice because they were both really good. You could almost toss a coin.

LINKLATER I was looking for two creative partners. I wasn’t looking for just two pretty faces.

HENDERSON Ethan and Julie had a chemistry that was electric and charming at the same time.

HAWKE Meeting Julie was like meeting a character from a novel, like Anna Karenina or something. She’s a very deep person. I’d never felt so American and so dumb in my life.

DELPY He was like a puppy, so young and sweet. He hates that, but really he had a beautiful naïve quality about him. I mean naïve in a good way, naïve but very smart at the same time.

Delpy, Hawke and Linklater headed to Vienna for a three-week intensive workshop ahead of the summer 1994 shoot and continued revising the script throughout 25 days of filming.

HAWKE Revising is way too mild of a word. Rick wanted to make a movie about living in the moment. And to do that we were all going to have to live in the moment together to create the movie. For every scene in there, we wrote, like, 17 that didn’t make the cut.

DELPY It was intense, and a lot of my personal feelings went into it. I was an extremely romantic person, very pure and full of dreams. The writing was very organic. The guys would listen to me as I was really the only woman in the room, especially when we got to Vienna.

LINKLATER To this day, they don’t really get the credit as actors because everybody thinks they’re improvising.

HAWKE It didn’t piss me off [that there wasn’t a discussion to credit them as writers]. It felt like such a grand adventure. I used to joke there were times when Julie and I didn’t want credit because we were so sure it was going to be so bad.

Regular trains were used to film Jesse and Céline’s meet-cute, as well as Céline’s send-off in the closing scene.

LINKLATER It was hell. We rode the trains from Vienna to Salzburg and back for three days to get the beginning scene and the shots out the windows. You’re good when the train reaches a certain speed, but if it’s jumping around, you’re screwed.

HAWKE My stepfather had given me this burgundy turtleneck, and I was in love with it. I don’t know why. And then I just immediately regretted it because it was really hot. What idiot thinks they look good in a turtleneck in summer in Vienna?

LINKLATER The very last shot of the movie, when Julie walks onto the train, we had that timed to the second and we got one chance to do it. It was like, the train’s going to leave here at 8:37:30. I’m going to say action at 8:20. She’s going to get on a non-moving train. And then when she gets to her seat, the train is going to be moving. It was tense, but we rehearsed the hell out of it and it worked.

DELPY It was insanely hot. I had not slept in days because we shot [mostly] at night. I remember being miserable. It was the end of the shoot, and I felt I was never going to see Rick and Ethan again.

When the pair almost kiss while listening to Kath Bloom’s “Come Here” in the record store booth, Delpy and Hawke’s reactions were authentic.

LINKLATER That’s the only time I withheld anything from the cast. The lyrics were in the script, but they had never actually heard the song. So you can see them really listening because they’d never heard that yearning, creaky thing in Kath Bloom’s voice that’s so moving.

HAWKE It’s probably my single favorite take of anything I’ve been involved with.

DELPY That was really special. It was like magic — each time I felt Ethan looking away, I would look at him and vice versa. I almost fell in love with him right there, but then Rick said cut.

Jesse and Céline’s first kiss takes place on Vienna’s Prater Ferris wheel at sunset, but was difficult in more ways than one.

LINKLATER We tried to shoot it at sunset, but they would only stop the Ferris wheel for 10 minutes, and then we’d have to go around and do it again. We had three different light levels by the time we finished. So we went back a week later and reshot that in the morning when they let us stop it for an hour. When you see their first kiss, that was shot in the a.m.

HAWKE Julie is afraid of heights. Try making out with somebody who’s absolutely petrified. It was challenging, and I don’t think she was terribly impressed — she’d been with a lot more interesting men than me.

DELPY I’ve never been on [a Ferris wheel] since. When you act, you have to get over your fears constantly. I’m also shy with men, and I had to kiss someone who was a friend at this point. It was scary.

HAWKE I remember laughing a lot because Julie just kept making fun of me, “That’s the look you give girls? You’ve got to do better than that!”

Linklater intentionally left several elements of the film up to the audience’s imagination, namely did Jesse and Céline have sex?

LINKLATER Technically, you could see it any way you want. If you look closely, she’s dressed a little differently. So if you really do the math, you go O.K., that dress had to come off to get that shirt off. Something happened. I think all the hints are there.

“Before Sunrise” made only $5.9 million worldwide, but they had created something that would outweigh the box-office receipts.

LINKLATER Ethan was the Gen X actor after “Reality Bites” and I was the Gen X director, and we didn’t really deliver a Gen X film. There’s no pop-culture references, no hipster types. You pay the price at the time, but now I’m kind of proud you can go to Vienna and have a “Before Sunrise” walking tour right next to a “Third Man” walking tour.

DELPY After the third film, now people think of me as Céline, and it’s sometimes hard to get out of this “ideal” woman role. Some people hate me for even trying to do anything different. It’s a bit frustrating.

Last year, Delpy said she was paid about a tenth of what Hawke made on “Before Sunrise” and didn’t achieve equal pay until “Before Midnight.” (She wouldn’t comment on the subject in our interview.) Linklater issued a lengthy statement in response, noting that “nobody was getting paid much at all.”

LINKLATER I got paid a lot less than I had on [“Dazed”]. Ethan, at the height of his popularity, took a huge pay cut. I won’t go as far as to say the film would not have happened without him, but it wouldn’t have happened in the same way.

HAWKE It was kind of a wake-up call for me after “Before Sunrise.” When it’s a young man who’s got ideas and wants to be a filmmaker and write — [people] find that really interesting. But a lot of men are really intimidated when that’s coming from a young female voice. Julie has always been one of the most remarkable film minds I’ve ever come in contact with, bar none. It’s amazing how much I just learned about how gender has played a part in defining and limiting her experience. The “Before” trilogy is a bad example of pay gap because nobody got paid. I have no idea what Julie got paid or what I got paid. On those movies none of us were doing it for the money.

After 25 years, the bygone era of “Before Sunrise” has taken on new meaning for the actors.

DELPY I was so young and vulnerable. I wish I could travel in time and tell Julie then to not self-destruct so much with anxiety and insecurity. Tell her to take care of herself. “Before Sunrise” is a very romantic film, and somehow I never had that romantic, dreamy encounter in my life. Movies are magic a bit, life isn’t.

HAWKE My daughter [the actress Maya Hawke] decided to watch the movie with some of her friends, and there was a certain envy they had for a time where you didn’t have email. Life insisted that you live in the moment more. There’s something about always being digitally present that allows you to not be present, and part of what Jesse and Céline try to do in that movie is actually be present with each other.

Every nine years, there’s been a sequel. But it’s unlikely a fourth film, if it happens, would arrive on schedule.

HAWKE There was a feeling I had in my gut when we finished “Before Midnight” that I’d never had before, which was that we were done. “Sunrise, “Sunset,” “Midnight” is one work in its own strange way. That doesn’t mean there won’t be another work, like an epilogue. I would be curious about an “After” series, about something where you really deal with the second half of your life.

LINKLATER Maybe we’ll wait until they’re in their 80s and do a comic remake of “Amour,” where one euthanizes the other in old age. I’m not ruling that out.

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