My editor from Paste Magazine, where I contribute film reviews, just directed a documentary about Richard Linklater. To accompany the release, I was assigned to write personal essays about "Before Sunset" and "Me and Orson Welles." In my enthusiasm, I accidentally banged out a 1500 word essay on "Before Sunrise" and my relationship with the film so, because it didn't run in Paste, I am posting it here. A link to the "...Welles" is included at the bottom. Robert Kaplow, author of the novel "Me and Orson Welles" contacted me to say how much he loved the essay and asked if he could post it on his website. Enjoy!
At the start, I really had it in for Richard Linklater. In 1989, I was a few years out of film school, had been on the crew of a couple of features but, mostly, I worked in a video store in Philadelphia. A friend of a friend had gotten some really great equipment and was looking to make a film. I banged out a screenplay, “The True Meaning Of Cool.” The film was going to be a loving but harsh mockumentary about this newly minted demographic, my generation, Generation X, specifically, the frequently offbeat dressed in black would-be filmmakers, artists, musicians, chain-smoking, coffee chugging cool people that I had gone to film school with. The frequently dressed in black would-be filmmaker with the really great equipment was not impressed, not amused and not interested in my screenplay. I sent it around. Nothing happened. I decided to somehow scrape my resources together and try to make the film myself.
Cut to 1991, I am working at a documentary production company, still dreaming of making my film when I heard about this film “Slacker” that was generating buzz. My film! Someone must have gotten ahold of my screenplay, gotten it to this guy and he ripped it off to make his own film. I tracked down — pre-internet!!! — all of the inside scoop on the evolution, development and production of this film and came to the humbling decision that someone had beaten me to the punch. I did, eventually, make a short version of “The True Meaning of Cool,” it got an award from the American Film Institute, and, ultimately it has occasionally opened some doors for me. While definitely covering similar ground, “Cool” could not be more different from “Slacker.” Okay, Linklater didn’t steal my idea but, clearly, I had to keep my eyes on the guy.
Keeping my eyes on the guy — as well as all of the other indie filmmakers who were coming out of nowhere in the late 80’s and early ‘90s — I rushed to see his next-film, the considerably bigger budget “Dazed and Confused.” It was “American Graffiti” set in the ’70’s, where I’d spent a substantial ten years of my youth, what could go wrong? Only, in my eyes, “Dazed…” did go wrong because, unlike “Graffiti…”, I really didn’t care about any of the badly developed characters or the flimsiest contrivance of a plot. Yes, I love movies about teenagers driving around, drinking, smoking, checking each other out and cranking up the tunes — especially when they are tunes I grew up with — but “Dazed…” left me cold. I know that the film has achieved a degree of cult status but I submit that many of those who revere it are those who actually lived a version of the scenario depicted or they are stoners who love to watch movies about people getting high.
Nothing could have prepared me for what Linklater did next. Back to 1989. Linklater, passing through Philly, met a young woman, Amy Lehrhaupt, in a toy store and the two spent the night walking around town, talking to each other, sharing their lives, opening their hearts, kissing and possibly more. Linklater and Amy tried to maintain contact with each other but eventually fell out of touch. In 1994, he shot “Before Sunrise”, co-written by him and Kim Krizan, inspired by the all-nighter with Amy. For years, he fantasized about Amy showing up to a screening of the film she inspired. In 2010, Linklater learned that Amy had been killed in a motorcycle accident just before he started shooting the film. Linklater dedicated “Before Midnight”, the second sequel to “Sunrise,” to Amy.
“Before Sunrise” hit me on so many levels. From a technical point of view, I have always loved the idea that someone can still have the audacity to make a movie about two people talking. How do you pitch that? What studio is going to hear that idea and say “Sounds like a winner.” I am a screenwriter who specializes in micro-budget films and I know writing screenplays that rely heavily on dialogue and character rather than set pieces and big action to fall back on is hard.
In 1995, when the film came out, I was trying to write a screenplay that I could produce myself for little money because it was basically six people talking in one location for 95% of the time. How Linklater made two people talking, walking around Vienna all night captivating and compelling was inspiring to me.
More than that, however, I just fell in love with the film. While, in general, I did not have much in common with Jesse and Celine, the main characters, I completely related to them, wanted to get to know them, understand them and see them succeed both as individuals and as a couple. Sure, I had been a teenager and gone through high school but not in the 70’s, not in Texas and I was not a stoner so, on many levels, I never really related to “Dazed And Confused.” Yes, Jesse and Celine are few years younger than me but still my generation and if I didn’t know anyone exactly like them in real life, I wanted to know them, felt like we could have been friends. I was invested.
Movies work very well when when they make the audience think to themselves “What if that was me?” as they watch the action onscreen unfold. In 1986, I spent a semester in London and, after classes ended, I backpacked alone throughout the continent. I had so much time to spend with myself, take stock of 21 year old life up to that point and I really did have a lot on my mind. As I planned my itinerary, I decided that I wanted to go “where fairy tales take place” and pinpointed Germany’s Black Forrest. I took a train from Munich to Tübingen, a smaller university town. From there, I got a bus out to a remote youth hostel where, it turns out, there were no vacancies. There were no more buses back to town so I started walked, ultimately being picked up by a nice couple who gave me a ride. I got back to Tübingen where I missed the last train, the station then closed and I spent the night walking around the town, licking my wounds, feeling lost and vulnerable. Meeting a cute European girl and walking around with her would have been really nice. Of course, real life rarely works out the way it works out in the movies. Real life has a way of playing out like real life.
In 2013, 24 years after making an attempt at indie film glory with the screenplay for "The True Meaning of Cool”, I directed my feature, “Stomping Ground”, which I’d also written. While the plot of my film bares no resemblance to “Before Sunrise,” it is about young, vulnerable characters grappling with strong emotional issues in one location over the course of several hours. Okay, yes, of course, Linklater did not steal the idea for “The True Meaning Of Cool” but I kept my eyes on him and I glad that I did because, without him and “Before Sunrise,” my dreams of making my own talky, intelligent film, might never have come true. Of course, meeting a girl and walking around Tübingen with her on that night in 1986 would have been nice, too.