Romancing a Trilogy: Sandra Adair Edits ‘Before Midnight’

Sandra Adair. Portrait by JoJo Marion

by Bill Desowitz

Arguably a highlight in the career of Sandra Adair, A.C.E., and her 20-year and 16-feature collaboration with Richard Linklater, has been cutting the director’s acclaimed romantic trilogy about soul mates Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy): Before Sunrise (1995), Before Sunset (2004) and, the latest, Before Midnight, which opens May 24 through Sony Pictures Classics.

In Before Sunrise, Jesse and Celine met by chance on a train and enjoyed after-hours Vienna; then they were reunited nine years later in Before Sunset for an afternoon in Paris. Now, after another nine-year hiatus, Before Midnight finds them in a committed relationship with twin girls on a vacation in Greece, but facing a mid-life crisis.

What’s unique about the Before trilogy is that it’s not only a perceptive chronicling of this couple’s fleeting love story, but also a three-decade snapshot of Linklater’s personal style: dialogue-driven, naturalistic and emotionally accessible films.

Before Sunrise was the second film I edited for Rick, and it was also the first film I ever cut on an Avid,” recalls Adair. “He returned from Vienna with a very rough cut assembled by my assistant at the time, Sheri Galloway. Though I had worked on nonlinear editing systems previously [the EMC2], I was confronted with the challenge of starting right in on the cut with Rick and learning to use the Avid at the same time. It was an interesting few weeks at first!

A scene from Before Midnight. Sony Pictures Classics

“From the moment I read the very heavily dialogued script for Before Sunrise, I understood how important the chemistry between the two lead actors was going to be,” she continues. “Rick and Julie and Ethan rehearsed intensively for weeks before shooting in Vienna and, thankfully, once the cameras were rolling, there was a natural tone to their performances. The main challenge in editing the film was finding a rhythm with the dialogue while simultaneously keeping the characters playful, seductive and at times whispery and intimate, but always connected to each other. This was the film where I really discovered the power of an expressive and rightly placed reaction shot. How one character’s words fall on another’s face, seeing how that dialogue is landing on the other person, can have a great impact.”

In Before Sunset, the first sequel, all of the romance is still there, as is the couple’s unmistakable connection, but not all of the youth and naïveté. Jesse is more vulnerable and filled with regrets while Celine is more guarded and more intense. The most challenging encounter — and Adair’s favorite — is the nine-minute car scene, shot with two cameras in traffic on the streets of Paris with stops and starts and turns at varying speeds.

“There was something raw and wonderfully honest in their performance in the car scene and I really wanted to keep that as intact as possible,” Adair explains. “There were select moments in some of the takes that I knew I absolutely wanted to use, including some humorous ones. The challenge was to be able to freely move from take to take, moment to moment, using all of those select pieces, but without having any geographical or technical issues interrupt the emotional build or the ‘reality’ of the moment.”

Working on the post-production of Before Sunrise, the first film in the series, in Austin, Texas in 1995 are, from left, picture editor Sandra Adair, re-recording mixer Larry Seyer, director Richard Linklater, supervising sound editor Tom Hammond and sound effects editor Wayne Bell. Courtesy of Sandra Adair

In Before Midnight, shot in only 15 days with a Greek crew and edited in two and a half months by Adair back in Austin, Texas (where both she and Linklater are based), the challenge was to keep the raw, in-the-moment honesty, while raising the emotional stakes between Jesse and Celine.

“There are themes that are touched on that are so real and so universal to long-term relationships where you struggle to be together, to stay together, you have all the pressures of finances and career and children, and it all was in the script,” Adair adds.

As with Before Sunset, Linklater collaborated on the script with his two stars before honing and rehearsing to their satisfaction. According to Adair, the spontaneity is genuine but it is not improvised. “Rick shoots a lot of film from a lot of different angles from a lot of different cameras,” she says. “Piecing this film together was like piecing together others in many ways in that you’re looking for the one take or the one section or the glimmer of a piece that absolutely crystallizes everything.”

Sandra Adair working on The Newton Boys in 1998. Courtesy of Sandra Adair

But it took a week to 10 days for Adair to get the disk drives from Greece while they were being transcoded. “We got dailies over the Internet but I didn’t actually have drives to plug into the Avid system,” she adds.

In Before Midnight, Jesse and Celine are found in another bravura car scene, with the twins asleep in the back seat — only this time it’s a more leisurely, if intense, 13-minute single take. The car scene was shot over a couple of days and Adair says Linklater knew immediately what take he wanted to use but covered it as a normal scene to be on the safe side.

“You’re living in the moment with Jesse and Celine and you’re not thinking about them acting,” Adair says. “You don’t have things happening in the background — technical issues that are messing up the take. It’s something you can watch for 13 minutes and be completely engrossed in.”

Before Midnight contains the same loose, ambiguous, conversational flow with lots of long takes and judicious use of hand-held camera, like its predecessors. There are about a dozen sequences that explore love and life and the nature of Jesse and Celine’s relationship.

“They ask one another very pointed and intimate questions, but also in a playful way,” Adair relates. “He totally seduced her that way and they continue that. And she’s really grown, I think, into a much more sophisticated, feminist, driven kind of woman. I think she always was that way, but throughout the years she really discovered who she is.”

A 20-minute outdoor dinner scene was the most demanding to cut, according to the editor. They shot it over four days with two cameras from every possible angle with nine people seated at the table. According to Adair, the filmmakers wanted everyone at the table feeling familiar, like you know their stories, but yet you still need to have the focus be on Jesse and Celine.

A scene from Before Midnight. Sony Pictures Classics

“The dinner scene is fascinating because of the generational differences and different stages of love and romance,” Adair explains. “There’s the young couple that think they’ll probably break up; and the older couple who are more playful and sexual; and the older woman who’s lost her husband and is looking back and trying to hold onto the memory; and the elderly man who says they were their own people.”

It’s very clear that the various love stories have an impact on Jesse and Celine. But when they tell their backstory, the viewer starts to sense the tension that’s been percolating during their Greek sojourn on the Peloponnese peninsula.

“Rick shoots a lot of takes for performance and the dinner scene was particularly intense,” Adair observes. “He encourages the actors to be as natural as possible and have fun — eating, laughing and talking — so there were unimaginable amounts of overlap and continuity issues, but he was very helpful with my sorting it out. I actually made a chart when I first started editing it, and I diagrammed the table and where all the cameras were and which direction they were shooting for every take. But by the time I got done with the chart, it looked like an Astrological chart and ended up not being very helpful for me at all.”

Meanwhile, a long walk among the ruins shot with a Steadicam is very much in the style of the earlier films. Once again, the hope was to find the perfect long take where the actors’ performance, the camera movement and the timing seamlessly cut together. But whereas Vienna and Paris were romantic urban settings in the earlier films, the Greek ruins are more rural and indicative of mortality and faded beauty. “I like the mythic iconography and, during that walk, they’re more out in the open than in the earlier two films, which I think is an interesting contrast,” Adair contends.

“It all culminates in a powerful encounter in a hotel room broken up by mood and divided by space,” she continues. “If you watch the first two films and drop in on Jesse and Celine now, and are happy to see these familiar people again and catch up with them, you’re really getting on the inside of what’s going on here,” Adair reveals. “There’s a lot more edge to them now. A few resentments built up over the years.”

It’s not surprising that Before Midnight is Adair’s favorite of the trilogy. She had no idea they were even going to make it until Linklater sent her the script from Greece in 2011. She confesses that she cried when she read it. After all, Jesse and Celine’s history has become part of Adair’s history too. But to the editor, it’s a deeper and richer experience before coming full circle.

What does Adair think about the prospect of doing a fourth film in the series? “They’ve already said they’re not going to discuss it for at least another five years,” Adair confirms.

Shall we make another date with Jesse and Celine in 2022?

About B Desowitz 20 Articles
Bill Desowitz writes about film for his Immersed in Movies blog (www.billdesowitz.com) and is a regular contributor to Thompson on Hollywood at Indiewire and Animation World Network. He can be contacted at bill.desowitz@yahoo.com.

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