Most Richard Linklater fans can tell you which film – and sometimes which scene – ignited their enthusiasm for the director, whether it was 1991’s influential indie Slacker, 1993’s high-school classic Dazed and Confused or 2003’s comedy School of Rock.
But, it all began with Before Sunrise.
Released 20 years ago this week, Before Sunrise boasted fresh-faced actors and a swoon-worthy premise: An American man (Ethan Hawke) meets a French woman (Julie Delpy) on a train, and they spend one magical evening together in Vienna. That alone was enough to attract my 17-year-old self to the theater, as was the case with many of my peers.
The true magic of Before Sunrise, however, lies beyond the picturesque scenery and smitten gazes. Building upon his gift for crafting relatable and engrossing conversation, Linklater’s characters feel fully formed, discussing everything from philosophy and religion to love and their hopes for the future.
"Rick Linklater wasn’t going to make the movie if he didn’t find the right two people," Ethan Hawke told ET at the 1995 Sundance Film Festival, where Before Sunrise premiered. "And he called me up one day and said, 'Hey, I met this actress, Julie Delpy … You gotta come meet her.' We read with her for, like, four minutes and it was like, 'Oh, OK. We’re gonna do the movie now.'"
As Delpy recalled to ET, "I remember at the audition, in five minutes I was … I was not feeling afraid or shy or anything."
Clearly, the chemistry worked. Before Sunrise opened to positive reviews and solidified Linklater, then 34, as a director "to watch."("He’s onto something," noted Roger Ebert in his review of the film
And while Linklater did go on to helm a few big-budget Hollywood flicks (The Newton Boys, Bad News Bears, School of Rock), what fans like myself truly love about the Austin-based auteur is that he has never stopped working on his own terms, and he continues to find joy in experimentation.
Linklater’s resume is filled with inspired projects that only he could make: The 2001 drama Waking Life is entirely rotoscoped, creating unsteady, dreamlike images that align with the movie’s theme. Tape, also released in 2001, takes place entirely in real time. Fast Food Nation (2006) transforms a best-selling nonfiction book into a gripping scripted drama.
Recently, of course, Linklater has been in the spotlight with Boyhood, which is nominated for six Academy Awards.
Boyhood reunites Hawke and the director, two artists who have delivered some of their best work together. Nine years after Before Sunrise's success, they reteamed with Delpy to create its acclaimed follow-up, Before Sunset. Nine years after that, 2013’s Before Midnight arrived, earning the trio an Oscar nomination for best adapted screenplay.
Like the Before trilogy, Boyhood offers a heartfelt and unique examination of the passage of time. Shot over 12 years, we see the world though the eyes of a child as he ages from 6 to 18, though just as compelling are the travails of his mother (Golden Globe and SAG Award winner Patricia Arquette) and father (Hawke).
Delpy told ET of Before Sunrise two decades ago, "We tried to make the film something that’s never been made before. We talk about things that people think but never really say to each other."
The same could be said about Boyhood, a movie that moves us not necessarily because of its story but because of its intimacy and the way it is told.
Richard Linklater isn’t a director who litters his films with witless fluff, excessive violence, heavy morals or "gotcha" endings. As a teenager watching Before Sunrise, I remember being struck by how ordinary so many parts of the movie seemed, and realizing that was one reason I loved it so much. Nearly 20 years later, while seeing Boyhood on the big screen and thinking about my own daughter, I had a similar, albeit more emotional, experience.
Some filmmakers seem to be guided purely by intellect, ambition or, quite frankly, their genitalia, but Linklater operates from the heart, and he always has. Two decades from now, hopefully his characters’ conversations still have us talking, into the dawn, about the joys, fears and challenges in our own lives.
Whitney Matheson is a pop-culture writer and the creator of the blog Pop Candy, which ran for 15 years on USAToday.com. Follow her on Twitter at @whitneymatheson.