Before 'Before Sunrise' and the complicated appeal of origin stories

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Image Credit: Despina Spyrou

While Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy seem made for each other in the trilogy of movies starting with Before Sunrise, it’s director Richard Linklater’s experience that brought their on-screen romance to fruition. In 1989, a young Linklater met a woman in a toy store in Philadelphia. They spent the day walking, and talking, and falling for each other in that enthusiastic, earnest way that’s only ever possible on a first meeting. And if it sounds familiar, it should. Linklater’s day with Amy Lehrhaupt, which he’s only recently discussed more openly in the press, inspired him to make Before Sunrise, 1995’s tale of a 20-something French girl (Delpy) and an American boy (Hawke) who meet on a train and decide to be reckless and carefree for a few hours. As Slate’s BrowBeat blog explains in depth based on an interview in The Times of London, the real life story is far more sobering than the 18-year saga that audiences have been treated to with Céline and Jesse.

The differences in the origin story and the idea of that perfect moment of artistic inspiration make Linklater’s often-told tale of his night in Philadelphia fascinating to pick apart. At 29, Linklater wasn’t quite as wide-eyed as Jesse. He’d already founded the Austin Film Society, made his first feature, and completed Slacker — which would go on to solidify his status in the indie filmmaking world after getting accepting into the 1991 Sundance Film Festival. And, at 20, Lehrhaupt was significantly younger. But as the accounts go, they exchanged numbers at the end of their night together and tried to talk until things dissolved naturally and they lost track of each other. But the idea was there, and Linklater teamed up with his co-writer Kim Krizan to ensure he’d be able to capture as authentic a back and forth between a smart woman and a man as possible.

Linklater never hid the inspiration for the story — he even referenced it back in a 1995 interview with Sight and Sound magazine. While on tour for Before Sunset, Linklater would later talk about what a lark it might have been had Lehrhaupt shown up at a screening of Before Sunrise when it finally came out in 1995. And then, according to a revealing recent interview in The Times of Londonthree years ago Linklater received a letter that informed him that Amy Lehrhaupt had died tragically in a motorcycle accident in May of 1994.

Linklater was able to take the idea of running into someone that you’d had an intense experience with — and turn it into Before Sunrise as well as Before Sunset, where 10 years later Céline reads about Jesse in the paper because of his recently-published book, and goes out to find him. But the saga of Céline and Jesse had already taken on a life of its own, separate from Lehrhaupt, and became about something much more than that one night in Philadelphia. Even Before Sunrise upgraded the locale (Vienna!) and the stakes (no numbers! separated by an ocean!). It’s a heightened, romanticized reality that functions outside of the origin story — especially considering the fact that Linklater decided that it would be more interesting for the characters in the sequel had they not kept in touch. 

Ultimately, the conversations and subjects addressed in the all the films evolved to represent the collective experiences, anxieties, and insights of a group. Krizan collaborated on Sunset too, but Linklater added the voices of Delpy and Hawke to the writing process. And for Midnight he wrote with just Delpy and Hawke, drawing on the wisdom that life had continued to teach them, so the films are far from an ode to or even wholly inspired by this one woman. That places an unfair burden on the story of that night in 1989 that we’re privileged to know any details about at all.

But after hearing of her death, Linklater did have a unique opportunity to do something to honor Lehrhaupt. Before Midnight is dedicated to Amy Lehrhaupt in the credits. It is a sweet, simple, and appropriate gesture for a woman he knew for a short time.

So PopWatchers, how do you feel filmmakers being forthcoming with their own real life inspirations behind story ideas? Does it help inform or give credence to the authenticity of the film? Do you think the filmmaker has an obligation to tell audiences when they’ve drawn from his or her life? And do the circumstances of this situation, and the late discovery of her untimely death change anything for you?

Follow Lindsey on Twitter: @ldbahr

Read More:
EW Review: ‘Before Sunrise’
EW Review: ‘Before Sunset’
EW Review: ‘Before Midnight’

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