Before Her Time: Julie Delpy Reflects on the Before Trilogy, and Her Struggle for Respect as a Female Filmmaker

French actress and director Julie Delpy is a part of the perfect trifecta of talent behind one of cinema’s most beloved and brilliantly written trilogies.

In Richard Linklater’s Before films (Before Sunrise in 1995, Before Sunset in 2004 and Before Midnight in 2013), Delpy and co-star Ethan Hawke eschewed the actor’s traditional passivity, taking on proactive roles as co-creators to shape their characters’ romantic odyssey. For a story that spans for nearly 20 years to remain artistically honest, realism needed to prevail over idealistic notions of love—a feat that was accomplished by having three different storytellers holding each other accountable. Delpy brought her experience of working with some of Europe’s greats (from Leos Carax in 1986’s Mauvais Sang to Krzysztof Kieślowski in his Three Colors films) into the context of an American indie. Witty, yet never unbelievable, the dialogue merges with both lived-in performances, making for one of the most realistic love stories ever told.

You might argue that the film’s only sin is to leave its fans hoping for another chapter in Celine and Jesse’s multi-city adventure, and not knowing if they’ll ever get it. ‘Til then, they’ll have to make do with the Criterion Collection’s new release of the trilogy, which dropped today (you can read our “Criterion Crash Course” piece on it here). In honor of the new package, MovieMaker had a candid conversation with the charmingly frank Delpy about her 18-year affair. As a respected director in her own right, with features like 2 Days in Paris (2007), its 2012 sequel 2 Days in New York, The Countess (2009) and Lolo (2015) under her belt, she opened up about the challenges she still faces in her career.

Carlos Aguilar, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): Prior to working in Before Sunrise, you had worked with some of the most revered European masters. What was it about Richard Linklater’s project that enticed you in a different way?

Julie Delpy (JD): When I met Richard, I realized that I’d always wanted to write and be a director, and be more involved than just being given a line. He quickly made it clear that my involvement would be further than acting, and that we would have to work a lot on the screenplay. I really liked that concept of workshopping and changing things. I didn’t know we were going to change the entire screenplay of Before Sunrise, but I knew were going to have a lot of work to do, writing. I was interested in that. I had seen his work. I had seen Dazed and Confused, which I really liked, and Slacker, which I really liked. I really liked the naturalistic approach to them, which I thought was really unusual at the time in Hollywood, with that new independent wave. That was really interesting to me as a European.

MM: Is this the only time that a director has given you the opportunity to be so involved in the creative process?

JD: The fact that Ethan and I wrote the screenplays is really unique. And it’s not just that—we went location-scouting, and we talked about how the scenes would be shot. It was a real collaborative approach. It’s OK with me when people have a very clear idea of what they want to do and there is a more directorial approach to a film. That’s fine too. Kieślowski—he was very, very the opposite of Richard, and that’s fine with me. I really got along with him. I don’t think he was like that with many people—he actually let me get involved a little more than the typical way he was dealing with things, which was very controlled. I had the chance to bring a little more than what was written for the part in Three Colors: White.

With Richard, it was a full-on collaborative work, which was really exciting for me, being 23. I had never had that opportunity before to be writing as much for a part. I had written a screenplay already, but I knew it was going to be a very hard road as a woman director, having to fight what a woman director has to fight. It was a great opportunity to be able to express myself through someone else’s film.

Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke in Before Midnight. Photograph courtesy of The Criterion Collection.

MM: Since Linklater allowed you and Ethan to collaborate deeply in the film, is that an approach you exercise with your own casts?

JD: I’ve always been attracted to naturalistic acting. I come from a family of actors, and when I see “acting,” it bothers me. I love naturalism, but I work very differently. The truth is that Richard loves to collaborate, but in my films I write everything, and everything is being said by the actors as it’s written. I do like to work with actors within the dialogue that’s written to find a way to make it completely natural.

I rehearse. Also, I try to make people forget that they are being filmed, but I do that by doing takes very quickly one after another. Sometimes people are caught off guard not knowing what’s going on. On [her 2011 film] Skylab I would do a scene and turn the camera off, but then I would turn it back on and say, “Let’s do the scene again very quickly,” so people get into a groove and they forget they are acting. I love when actors act and they forget they are acting. I always feel the best performances happen when you go into a weird zone that doesn’t involve much thinking. The other day a friend of mine asked me, “How do you behave naturally even in interviews?” and I was like, “You just forget about it,” and it’s the same for acting—that’s what I’m asking my actors to do: forget about acting and to just be in the moment. You shake people in a way, or put them in certain situations. Or do a lot of rehearsals. That helps because you start forgetting and you start to be. In Before Midnight we rehearsed so much that we would forget we were acting. We knew the dialogue so well it became a part of us.

MM: What would you like to borrow from Linklater as a filmmaker?  

JD: I would have loved to have the luxury that Richard had with the Before films: long rehearsal with two actors. I end up never being able to completely do it. In [2007 film] 2 Days in Paris I was able to do it a little, because I was L.A. with [co-star] Adam Goldberg, but it’s always hard to get time from actors. On my films I try to do on set what we were doing in prep on the Before movies. Or sometimes I do a little rehearsal on the weekend. I wish I had the luxury of actors agreeing to rehearse. I think for my next film I’ll be able to do that, because I think actors will realize that the intensity of the film is such that if they don’t rehearse, it’s going to be hard to do it.

Somehow I never get the kind of production that allows me to rehearse. I’m a woman, so I’ve had to do films for half the budget and half the time. I do my best with half of what a male director would get.

Delpy and Adam Goldberg in 2 Days in Paris (2007) Courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films

MM: How much of you did you bring to Celine, your character in the Before films? And how much was already there when Linklater cast you?

JD: I think Richard cast us originally, Ethan and I, because he liked who we were as well. I’m not a very girly girl. I’m a bit rebellious in my personality. I’m cute, but not the usual “cute.” I would say my concerns in life are not superficial. I can be superficial—I have to be sometimes; if you go to a party you have to dress up and do all that shit, but I really don’t have anything of the superficial in my life. I couldn’t care less about all that shit, and I think that was appealing to him. Ethan is also very into his own world and a bit more creative than the usual actor. All that stuff, I think, attracted Richard to us. In a way there is a bit of me in Celine because she is definitely not a one-dimensional character as a woman, and Ethan is also not one-dimensional either, as a person and as the character of Jesse.

Each time we would go into writing something that was a little misogynistic or a little sexist, I would go bananas. They couldn’t get way with anything sexist [laughs]. I think Richard liked that, because he wanted the female voice. It’s two men in a room with one woman, and they really listened to me. The minute I said, “No, no, this is bullshit,” they would fight me in some ways, but I would get the last word [laughs]. I think Richard liked that I’m the opposite of a pushover if I have to be. I’m also very docile when it comes to working with directors that have their vision and want to impose every single frame of the film, but Richard definitely wanted me to be very involved. I think that’s what makes the films what they are, that the point of view of the woman is not a male fantasy.

MM: Did you feel you brought something unique to these films because you came from having worked in Europe and they were two American young men?

JD: I was raised by European artists and actors. My parents were both hardcore feminists—my dad even more than my mom, believe it or not—and I was raised with the idea of equality, so I think my approach is European. I think Richard likes European films a lot. He loves Ingmar Bergman, and I was raised watching Bergman films. When I watched my first Bergman film I was 9 or 10 years old, and I think it was Fanny and Alexander. The fact that I was immersed in so much intellectual European cinema was something Richard was very interested in.

MM: Would you be able to work with Richard and Ethan in a project that wasn’t part of this series or would that be strange for you?

JD: I think it wouldn’t really make sense. We have these films, and if we ever decide to do another one—I’m not sure we would—but if we ever decided to, it would have to be about those characters again. I think it wouldn’t make sense any other way.

MM: In one of the features included in this new release, the three of you talk about the rooms, in different cities, in which the films were born. Could you expand on the importance of these spaces for your creative process as a team?

JD: There was one room in Vienna. It was the producer’s living room that he would lend us because we needed complete peace, and this feeling of being at home somewhere. Then there was a little studio in Paris for Sunset—but first there was my tiny studio in Paris, which is like 150 square feet. That’s where I go when I go to Paris, fancy, rich Hollywood person that I am [laughs]. I love when people say, “Oh, the hypocritical people in this business, they’re all rich.” Yeah, right! Come and visit my house in L.A. and my apartment in Paris—you’ll see the “fancy Hollywood.”

Anyway, we were working in my apartment in Paris and then we had a little studio that the production rented for us to work, which was lovely. I remember many days of writing there. Then there was a conference room at the hotel where we shot the fight scene at the end of Before Midnight in Greece, and I think we also used Ethan’s bedroom for a while at the beginning. We had those different rooms that we worked on, and that I will never forget that. That was a really fun part, but also a lot of work to write those films.

MM: Are there any female directors that you look up, to or up-and-coming ones whose work excites you? You acted alongside Greek director Athina Tsangari in Before Midnight.

JD: I adore Athina. I think she made a fantastic film—I loved Chevalier. One of the funniest movies I’ve ever seen in my life. It’s so funny and so spot-on. She captures men in a really fun way. It’s the funniest movie about men I’ve ever seen. There are very few directors I can say that I like all their films, and one of them is a woman: Jane Campion. I like every single thing she has done, from her short films to her TV show, Top of the Lake, everything. I cannot say that about any other director who is alive right now outside of her. There is always a film I don’t like from most directors. I don’t like all of my own films, for example [laughs]. I can’t say I like every film by any male director, which is actually a paradox because no one in Hollywood—no producer in Hollywood—is looking into a woman to be the next Kubrick, because no one believes a woman is a genius. They believe that any young guy that comes up with one OK film can be the next Kubrick, but not a woman. It’s ridiculous, because Jane Campion has only made great films all her life.

MM: How difficult has it been to balance your career as an actress and a director? Is it complicated to go back and forth between the two?

JD: What’s hard is that a lot of people don’t think of me as someone who wants to work as an actress because I direct. They think, “If you are director, you must be a bitch or a pain in the ass.” I worked with a director recently and at the end of the shoot he came up to me and said, “Wow, you are so nice,” and I’m like, “Yeah, what were you expecting? You were expecting someone angry? Or that because I’m a feminist, I hate men?“ [Laughs] All those stupid fucking ideas that people have about women directors are ridiculous. I’m the opposite of a bitch. I’m the nicest person there is. Yes, I can get angry when I see someone beating up a kid. When I see someone doing something really wrong, I will rebel. I’m not a bitch. I’m everything but a bitch. The proof of it is that everyone that I’ve worked with in my life wants to work with me again and has worked with me again and again: Daniel Brühl, or Richard and Ethan. It’s funny, this idea that I would be a difficult person. I’m outspoken and I’m opinionated, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t respect people’s visions. I don’t work much as an actress because people are scared of me, I guess. I don’t think I’ve had one meeting in I don’t know how many years, for any film I wanted to do.

Hawke, Richard Linklater and Delpy on the set of Before Sunset. Courtesy of Warner Brothers

MM: So, all things considered, do you prefer acting or directing?

JD: It’s two different tasks. Directing is very grounding. You feel very in control. There is something very settling about directing. It’s emotionally very rewarding, because you don’t have to express much emotion as a director. You are artistically involved, but not as emotional. When you are an actor, you have to expose your emotions constantly. It’s less responsibility overall, but it’s more emotional responsibility, and it’s sometimes more difficult. Sometimes I find acting more difficult than directing. Directing is more in my nature in a weird way, but I love acting as well.

MM: Would you say you have a favorite film out of the three in this trilogy?  

JD: No. I would say one of the scenes I got the most involved with was the fight scene in Before Midnight. I really enjoyed writing it and doing it. With these films, I can’t really say I like one more than the other. I think of those films as one work. It’s hard to say. They are so different and they are about different stages in life.

MM: Do you consider the Before trilogy a landmark in your career?

JD: Yes, as an actress and as a writer. But as a director I’m hoping my best work is still to come—whenever people stop thinking women are only good to make cakes. I’m shit at making cakes [laughs]. I’m a much better director than a cake-maker. MM

The Before Trilogy was released by The Criterion Collection on Blu-ray and DVD on February 28, 2017.

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