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‘Before Midnight’ Trilogy Might Look Improvised, But Every Word is Scripted

Chatting with the trio behind “Before Midnight” — writer-director Richard Linklater and writer-stars Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke — is a bit like being in one of their movies. The conversation flows freely and quickly, with a great deal of overlapping dialogue and finishing of one another’s sentences.

The three recently gathered at Loews Santa Monica Beach Hotel the day after winning the Critics’ Choice Movie Award’s Louis XIII Genius honor for their work on what has come to be known as the “Before” trilogy: 1995’s “Before Sunrise,” 2004’s “Before Sunset” and 2013’s “Before Midnight.” Or, as Hawke jokingly calls it, “the lowest-grossing trilogy in the history of motion pictures.”

While they may not be making blockbusters, they’re not losing money — “Midnight” has grossed $11.2 million worldwide against a budget of just $3 million. And the triumvirate has achieved something that’s perhaps even more difficult. Over the course of 20 years, they have created beloved characters with a passionate following. All three films have earned critical raves, and the last two earned Oscar nominations for adapted screenplay.

The premise of each movie is simple, centering on Celine (Delpy) and Jesse (Hawke), who meet cute on a train in “Sunrise” and are reunited for one day in “Sunset.” That film ended with the possibility of the two remaining together, and “Midnight” opens to show that they are indeed married, with twin daughters. On the surface, not much appears to happen: The couple talk, fight, make up, move forward.

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The co-writers say the sequel scripts generally begin as jokes. “We have a six-year break or so between movies where we don’t talk about it except to toss around goofy ideas,” Linklater says. “Like, what if we jumped genres entirely and found Jesse and Celine working as international spies.”

In early 2012, Linklater said they would shoot “Midnight” that summer, in Greece. Weeks before the August shoot date, the collaborators met to finalize the script and rehearse. But achieving the spontaneous feel of the films takes a lot of work. “I know it seems naturalistic, but it’s really hard on us,” Delpy says. “That’s why we take nine years to recover between films!”

In fact, there is no improvisation. Every word is scripted, including the overlapping dialogue. Linklater admits he feels both flattered and frustrated that people believe the movies utilize improv. “That is the objective, to make it seem like that,” he notes. “I’ve had so many directors pull me aside and ask how we do the overlaps.”

Linklater says it would be technically impossible to improvise many of the scenes, citing, for instance, a 13-minute single-shot scene at the start of “Midnight” that takes place entirely in a car. “Think about the technical side of that,” he notes. “We had to shut down roads. We had lighting, moving cars, a focus puller. You can’t do all of that on the fly.”

Delpy and Hawke point to that scene as one of the most difficult, both as writers and actors. “Nobody wants to be the person who spoils the take in the last minute,” Delpy says. Hawke estimates that early drafts of the car scene were as long as 38 pages. During rehearsal, the trio would get in a car and drive around and read it out loud. “We would decide what was too long, what was too boring, then go back to the hotel and rewrite and cut,” he adds.

While another installment for Jesse and Celine is not in the cards, their creators will likely partner on future projects. Linklater and Hawke just premiered “Boyhood,” a film shot over the course of 12 years, at the recent Sundance Film Festival.

How does Delpy feel about being left out? “I’m a little pissed off,” she jokes. “And I feel a little guilty,” says Linklater. “But we started that film before we did ‘Sunset.’ ” Adds Hawke to Delpy: “You’re not in it, and that’s why it won’t work. It’s the one that might finally reveal Richard is untalented.”

Linklater is quick to disagree. “Every film threatens to do that,” he deadpans.

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