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The “Before” trilogy is, in my opinion, one of the greatest gifts of modern cinema.
Three films, each separated by nine years, that together tell a beautiful and brutal
story of what love means as we progress through life.
All three films have an unusual form—comprised almost exclusively of lengthy conversations
between the two central characters, Jesse and Celine
Because of this unusual structure, I remember being in film school and arguing that Before
Sunset was a perfect example of a movie that doesn't have a Hollywood structure.
Oh film school Michael, you young fool.
Fortunately, as I've grown older and wiser, I've realized that one of the reasons Before
Sunset is so amazing is because it is so structured.
So today, I want to break the film into five acts and dissect each one to uncover the invisible
structure that keeps eighty pages of conversation engaging...
...to look at how the script constructs and then destroys each character's facade...
…and to examine how each moment is tied to the central dramatic question.
Let's take a look at one of my favorite films, Before Sunset.
First, let's define what a story's dramatic question is.
In his book Story, Robert McKee describes it as a variation on the question 'How will
this turn out?'
writing:
“Hunger for the answer to the Major Dramatic Question grips the audience's interest,
holding it to the last act's climax.”
The dramatic question is the hook, the reason we continue watching, and the engine that
keeps Before Sunset engaging.
Before Sunset opens on Jesse finishing the last leg of his book tour.
As he answers questions, it becomes clear that he's written the events of Before Sunrise
into a book.
This introduces the dramatic question of this act—the same one the audience was left with
at the end of Before Sunrise.
“The book ends on an ambiguous note - we don't know.
Do you think they get back together in six months like they promised each other?”
This introduces the dramatic question of this act,
the same one the audience was left with at the end of Before Sunrise:
Did Jesse and Celine get back together in six months like they promised?
Asking this question overtly but refusing to answer it creates tension,
which draws us in.
“In the words of my grandfather,
'to answer that would take the piss outta the whole thing.'”
To keep us engaged, the film slowly hints at the answer,
starting with the inciting incident.
“Across the room, Celine emerges from behind a row of books,
where she's been hiding and listening.
“He takes a beat, still looking at Celine, not sure what to do next."
But simple curiosity about the answer to the dramatic question
isn't enough to keep the audience engaged.
The substance of a story comes from characters struggling to resist change.
One way characters resist change is by trying to maintain a facade—
a persona they construct to hide the painful truth underneath.
In the first act, Before Sunset hints at the truths Jesse and Celine are hiding from.
"I flew all the way over there. You blew the thing off.
My life's been a big nosedive since then, but it's not a problem."
- “No, you can't say that." - "I'm kidding."
Jesse suggests his life was ruined when she didn't show up,
but quickly dismisses it as a joke...
“Reading something, knowing the character in the story is based on you,
it's both flattering and disturbing at the same time.”
“How is it disturbing?”
“I don't know. Just being part of someone's memory.
Seeing myself through your eyes.
How long did it take you to write it.”
…and Celine suggests his vision of her was disturbing, but immediately changes the subject.
These are the truths the characters are afraid of confronting, locked away behind their facades.
But people and characters always resist changing unless they are forced to,
which is why the film introduces one final dramatic ingredient.
“How long 'till I have to go to the airport?”
“You should leave at 7:30 at the very latest.”
Jesse has a plane to catch, so now a ticking clock looms over everything that comes afterward—
there is pressure.
So to recap:
Act one establishes Jesse and Celine's facades,
introduces a time constraint to pressure the characters,
and asks a dramatic question—
which by the end of the act has actually been answered.
Celine and Jesse did not meet up nine years ago, and haven't spoken since.
So our attention turns to a new dramatic question,
the central dramatic question at the heart of the entire film.
Will Jesse and Celine get together this time?
Now we're ready for act two.
To answer this dramatic question,
we have to know if there is still even a romantic spark between them,
so the second act is about Jesse and Celine catching up.
But how do you make fourteen pages of chit chat about politics, their careers,
and how they've aged engaging?
The writers make sure that each conversation topic eventually relates to the dramatic question.
Disagreements allow for playful banter...
"I realize that there are a lot of serious problems in the world."
-"Okay. Thank you." -"Okay?"
"I mean, I don't even have one publish in the whole Asian market."
"All right."
...Celine's story about living the U.S. turns into a conversation about the differences
between American men and French men...
- "I guess they're not as, um..." - "What?"
"What's the word? Um... horny?"
"They're not as horny."
"All right, listen to me on this one.
In that regard, I am proud to be an American."
...And reflecting on how long it's been since they first met allows them to comment
on how they each look.
"Okay. Well? Voilà"
"So?"
“…you look beautiful.”
In other words, it always comes back to romance.
These fourteen pages of conversation about politics,
their careers, and how they've aged,
serve to demonstrate that Jesse and Celine clearly still enjoy talking to each other
and still find each other attractive.
So with clear facades and the possibility of Jesse and Celine getting together looking good,
the film moves to act three, where everything gets more complicated.
When the audience's relationship to the dramatic question remains static,
a story starts to drag, which is why it's important to complicate the dramatic question.
In the first half of act three, Jesse and Celine start overtly flirting with each other.
"If we were both going to die tonight,
would we talk about your book, the environment, or..."
"I would still want to talk about magic in the universe.
- I'd just want to do it from a..." - "What?
"A hotel room, you know, in between sessions of us wildly fucking until we die."
“Wow. Well, why waste time with a hotel room?
Why not do it right there on a bench?"
“He immediately grabs her and pulls over to a bench.
...as she is suddenly overcome with shyness.”
“Well, we're not going to die tonight.”
“All right. Too bad.”
“She repositions herself on the bench next to him.”
It seems like they're both interested in reconnecting,
like we're moments away from getting the fairytale answer to the dramatic question...
So it's the perfect time for the screenwriters to have Celine casually bring up
the one topic the've been avoiding.
“So I read in that article you are married with a kid?
That's great.”
“A slightly weird look from Jesse: 'knew this was coming, eventually.'”
This is the film's midpoint,
the reveal of a seemingly insurmountable obstacle
that re-contextualizes the entire film thus far and complicates the dramatic question.
What would it mean for Jesse and Celine to get together now?
Do we even still want that?
Now that the dramatic question has been complicated,
the film uses conflict to complicate the characters as well.
Jesse and Celine are each other's opponents,
so part of their function in the story is to erode the other's facade by attacking the lie they project.
Jesse's lie is that “love is simply a choice.”
“So you got married because men you admire were married?”
"In the moment, I remember thinking that it didn't much matter, the who of it all.
That nobody is going to be everything to you.
and that ultimately, it's just the simple action of committing yourself,
meeting your responsibilities that — that matters."
But spending time with Celine has been revealing the importance of connection,
which is wearing on Jesse's facade.
“Jesse then speaks in a voice that is both louder
and more frustrated and desperate than we've seen.”
“Oh God, why weren't you there in Vienna?!”
"I told you why."
"I know why. I just... I wish you would have been.
Our lives might have been so much different."
As his own facade cracks, Jesse starts challenging Celine's lie—
that “everything worked out for the best.”
“Maybe not, maybe we would have hated each other eventually.”
"Oh what, like we hate each other now?"
“Celine is a bit tense.”
“Well the past is the past, it was meant to be that way.”
The struggle of the characters trying to hold onto their lies
is what makes this section so gripping.
By the end of the third act, it's clear that there are cracks in each character's facade,
but they are still holding on to their lies.
So the story ratchets up the pressure.
"Well, I guess this is good-bye. You better give me your—"
"No, why don't we just give you a ride home, wherever you're going, huh?"
“Well, I can take the Metro. I'm fine.”
"No, no. My flight's not until 10:00. They've got me arriving two hours early."
"This way we can keep talking."
They are truly almost out of time,
so they climb into the car...and enter the most explosive act of all
...act four.
Act four centers around Celine—
who has been clinging to her facade more tightly than Jesse—
as . she slowly unravels in a three-and-a-half page cascade of emotion.
It begins with Celine restating the lie she is trying to believe.
“For me, it's better I don't romanticize things as much anymore.
It doesn't make me sad, it is the way it is.”
Jesse, acting as her opponent, calls her out.
"Is that why you're in a relationship with someone who's never around?"
... which forces her to admit she has problems with romance now.
“When someone is always around me I'm suffocating.”
But again, Jesse calls her out, forcing her to acknowledge her contradiction.
“Wait, you just said you need to love and be loved.”
“Yeah, but when I do, it quickly makes me nauseous.
It's a disaster.”
This snowballs into an emotional response
that will finally force Celine to admit the truth she hinted at in act one.
“I was fine until I read your fucking book.
It reminded me how genuinely romantic I was, how I had so much hope in things
and now it's like
I don't believe in anything that relates to love. I don't feel things for people anymore.
In a way I put all my romanticism into that one night
and I was never able to feel all this again.”
Because the last thing characters want is to reveal the truth,
when it finally comes out it is often messy...even disastrous.
"I've gotta get away from you."
- Stop the car. I want to get out.” - “No, no. Don't get out."
"It's being around you — Don't touch me!
I want to get on a cab."
This is the story's crisis,
the worst possible consequence of the inciting incident.
Maybe we're about to get the answer to the dramatic question:
not only do they not get together, but their reunion ends in a terrible fight.
But, she stays, and after her facade is destroyed,
Jesse is finally able to reveal the painful reality his life has become.
“You think you are the one dying inside? My life is 24/7 bad.
And I know that there's something wrong
that I — God, that I can't keep living like this,
that there's gotta be something more to love than commitment.
But then I think that I might have given up on the whole idea of romantic love,
that I might have put it to bed that day when you weren't there.
You know, I think I might have done that."
Finally, the truth is out:
they both gave up on romance when they didn't meet in Vienna nine years ago.
Their souls are bared, their facades have crumbled,
and as they arrive at Celine's apartment it's finally time to answer the dramatic question:
Will Jesse and Celine get together this time?
By act five we understand how complicated the dramatic question is,
but now we also understand how complicated the characters are,
and that this could be the second chance at love they both need.
So as Jesse goes upstairs so Celine can play him a song before he heads to the airport,
there is a new kind of tension.
“They start up the stairs, not saying anything, but acting like everything is normal.
As they continue in silence, the charged undertone seems even more pronounced.”
As they hang out in her apartment,
we see what Jesse and Celine have earned by weathering the painful storm of exposing their truths
and surrendering their facades.
Their true selves are together for the first time in nine years,
and it's clear with every moment this is where they want to be.
“As the song keeps going, and Celine keeps clowning around,
Jesse just sits there with the most peaceful, happy grin we've ever seen on him.”
But it's not until the very last line of the film
that the dramatic question is finally answered.
“Baby, you are gonna miss that plane.”
“I know.”
So, does Before Sunset have a conventional Hollywood story structure?
Well, if we take the big moments we've just covered
and overlay them onto the Syd Field paradigm structure—
the three-act model used in most Hollywood films—
we see that they fit pretty snugly.
The first section has an inciting incident...
...there's a first plot point as Jesse and Celine start talking...
...there's a midpoint reversal that flips the story on its head...
...there's a second plot point when Celine wants to get out of the car
and it looks like their relationship will end badly...
...and there's a third act climax as each character makes the ultimate choice.
So, in that respect,
sorry film school Michael, you were mistaken.
Before Sunset does have a conventional Hollywood structure.
But in all honesty,
you could take just about anything and force it to fit into this structure if you tried hard enough.
Simply adhering to structure for its own sake isn't enough to make a movie good.
Before Sunset is brilliant because it is a beautifully-designed real-time conversation
that organically takes its two characters through a full arc,
and the result of that is a structure so effortless it seems invisible.
This is something that is hard to come by,
and it's what film school Michael was connecting . with.
That the film feels so romantic and raw
is really a signal of the immense effort and honesty
that was poured into Before Sunset.
So much of what makes the Before Trilogy great is the power of conversation,
and as I was working on this video I kept thinking about my favorite book,
Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari.
Sapiens is a fascinating summary of humanity's evolution,
and one of my favorite chapters is about the importance of language.
He describes one theory, that
“Our language evolved as a way of gossiping...
It is not enough for individual men and women to know the whereabouts of lions and bison.
It's much more important for them to know who in their band hates whom,
who is sleeping with whom, who is honest, and who is a cheat.”
Sapiens made me appreciate the true power of conversation
and so many other aspects of humanity,
and you can download the audiobook today for free with Audible.
If you're a regular viewer of Lessons from the Screenplay,
then you've probably heard me talk about how much I love Audible
and that they have the largest selection of audiobooks on the planet,
but through the month of July there's a special offer going on.
Amazon Prime members can start an Audible membership and save 66% on your first 3 months—
it's essentially like getting three months for the price of one.
Just head to audible.com/LFTS or text LFTS to 500 500
to get started today.
Thanks to Audible for sponsoring this video.
Hey guys! Hope you enjoyed the video.
There's so much to talk about with Before Sunset,
which is why I'm very happy we have our podcast, "Beyond the Screenplay."
Our episode on Before Sunset is out today.
We do a deeper dive into that film as well as the entire "Before Trilogy."
So check it out! The link to the episode is in the description below.
Thank you, as always, to my patrons on Patreon
and supporters here on YouTube for making this channel possible.
Thanks for watching, and I'll see you next time.
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The Hidden Structure of Before Sunset

159 Folder Collection
Elisa published on July 28, 2019
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