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THROUGH THE COVID LENS: Reassessing “Before Sunrise” in the Age of Coronavirus

Twenty-seven years ago this month, one of the greatest love stories ever put to film kicked off with the 1995 release of “Before Sunrise.” It was followed nine years later by “Before Sunset” and nine years after that by “Before Midnight.” Together these films chronicle the love, rediscovery, and relationship of Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy), creating something truly special and unrivaled in cinema history.

It all began back in 1994, when Richard Linklater shot “Before Sunrise” on location in Vienna. Filmed and set in a time before the internet, smartphones, social media, and hyper connectivity, “Before Sunrise” tells the story of two twenty-somethings who meet on a train and disembark together in Vienna. They only have one night to spend together. In the morning, her train will take her back to Paris and his flight will take him back to America. “Before Sunrise” asks, “can you fall in love in a night?”

Written by Linklater and Kim Krizan, with un-credited work from Delpy and Hawke, “Before Sunrise” is inspired by a night Linklater had walking around Philadelphia with a woman named Amy. The story may seem simple but there is beauty in that simplicity.

With themes that explore self-actualization and self-discovery as they mix with the choices and pressures of sharing your life with someone else, this movie is not the mid-1990s time-capsule it may seem. It is a timeless film and a portrait of falling in love.

Shot on a budget of $2.5 million by cinematographer Lee Daniel, “Before Sunrise” premiered at Sundance and became a critical darling whose reputation has only grown with the passage of time. While it was well reviewed in 1995, “Before Sunrise” is now considered by many to be one of the most romantic movies of all time. In 2008, Empire even counted it among the best films ever made. As the omicron variant pushes us back toward isolation and winter keeps many of us indoors, let’s snuggle up and look through the COVID lens at “Before Sunrise.”

To illustrate how pandemic guidelines and restrictions would affect this classic romance, we’ve broken things down into three parts:

· Safety first: what makes this movie safe

· The look of love: the importance of mise-en-scène

· Fresh perspective: 2022 considerations

Safety First: What Makes This Movie Safe

The first thing we notice when we look at this indie classic is how safe it already is. In fact, it may very well be one of the safest movies to make during a pandemic. Let’s look at three big reasons why:

· Cast Size

· Shot Simplicity

· Rehearsal

Cast Size

As we have highlighted many times over this series, one of the best ways to increase safety in a scene is to decrease the number of characters in it. Well, practically this entire movie is scenes between only Jesse and Celine.

Other than a few interactions with a handful of locals, this film is just our two leads. That is a short call sheet and short call sheets can make sets safer during this coronavirus pandemic.

Shot Simplicity

“Before Sunrise” is made up of many long takes and long takes can be complex to shoot. They may involve lots of technical details. But “Before Sunrise’s” long takes are made much easier because they are simple shots.

The shots in this movie rarely involve anything more complex than tracking two people walking down an empty street. Other times, its our two leads seated at a table, or on a bus, or lying down in the grass. Simple shots further reduce the personnel on set which further increases safety. Linklater and company knew that the intimacy they were looking for was at odds with look-at-me shot designs. Those types of shots would also require a larger crew. By keeping it simple, they kept things safe.


Simple shots are not the same as easy shots. “Before Sunrise” possesses a naturalism that lends it an air of breezy improvisation. But that is part of its genius. This movie (like its subsequent sequels) was tightly scripted and thoroughly rehearsed.

Each and every bit of overlapping dialog is planned. Each interruption, pause, and subject change is scripted. Each moment of spontaneity, designed. Each step and twirl, blocked.

From a general safety perspective, rehearsal is valuable because it ensures everyone is making the same movie. This cuts down on attempts by actors and directors to surprise each other, which can lead to injuries. Rehearsal allows the crew to know exactly where the scene will take place, where it will end, and where everyone will be throughout. Safety often begins with getting everyone on the same page, and rehearsal does just that.

From a pandemic safety perspective, rehearsal allows everyone – including the cast members – to remain as safe as possible for as long as possible. It minimizes un-masked and un-distanced time. Rehearsal also tends to shorten the actual shoot time which allows cast and crew to return to safety much sooner than on unrehearsed productions.

By keeping the cast small, the shots simple, and rehearsing each scene, Linklater and company made a movie that would be one of the safest to shoot during this pandemic. But it has a deeper lesson to teach if we look a little closer.

The Look of Love: The Importance of Mise-En-Scène

This movie is not only safe. It is also a masterpiece. But its deeper lesson lies in the fact that it is safe because it’s a masterpiece. “Before Sunrise” is a perfect example of the value of mise-en-scène.

Put succinctly, mise-en-scène is the environment in a scene, its atmosphere. This film’s masterstroke was to make its atmosphere reflect the mental state of its characters.

Many lesser indie directors would likely have tried to populate the frame. Vienna in the summer can be a crowded place and other filmmakers might want to show that. In film, we often correlate large scenes with production value. And while large, crowded, complex scenes can look amazing, they don’t necessarily add value to our stories. And they certainly don’t add safety.

Linklater and company understood what it is like to fall in love. When you first start to fall in love with someone, you feel as if you are the only two people in the world. All the rest of humanity seems to disappear, leaving just the two of you, together. What puts “Before Sunrise” at the pinnacle of its genre is how it captures this feeling of seclusion.

All the elements that make “Before Sunrise” a safe film – the small cast size, the empty streets, the simple shots – are used to express the feeling of falling in love. The mise-en-scéne is “new love.” This is a remarkable, and unparalleled achievement that not only makes the movie a classic, it also makes it safe.

Fresh Perspective: 2022 Considerations

If we were to shoot “Before Sunrise” today here are some pandemic considerations we would want to account for:

· The Situation in Austria: As of this writing, the CDC classifies the COVID-19 situation in Austria (home of Vienna, the setting of this movie) as a Level 4: Very High. This is the CDC’s most dire classification, and it highly recommends that no one travel to Austria right now. This would mean potentially looking elsewhere for a location for “Before Sunrise.” · Omicron Variant: The newest variant of the coronavirus is the fastest spreading variant yet. This has already led to a slow down across the entertainment industry. If we were shooting “Before Sunrise” today, we might want to consider postponing production until the omicron wave is over. · Travel Restrictions: To enter Austria right now, you would need to show proof of vaccination (or recovery) and a booster shot (or a negative PCR test result). While we highly recommend that everyone be vaccinated and boosted, we understand that this is not always the case on film sets. We would need to take into consideration cast and crew vaccination status before committing to shooting in Austria. · Union Guidelines: We would be sure to follow all union guidelines pertaining to COVID-19 safety on set.

Final Thoughts “Before Sunrise” comes from a time so far in the past that it might as well be another country. Maybe even another world. But what makes it resonate so profoundly 27 years later is how effortlessly it seems to capture the feeling of falling in love with someone new. The time – and the tech – may change, but that feeling is universal and timeless.

If we had to shoot this movie today, we would want to account for the situation in Austria, the rise of omicron, travel restrictions, and union guidelines when choosing a location for the film. Vienna just happened to be where Celine and Jesse met, but they could meet anywhere two young wayward train travelers might find themselves.

The creative team behind “Before Sunrise” made a nearly pandemic-proof film. And a perfect portrait of falling in love. They created an awe-inspiring mise-en-scène that eliminated all non-essential characters, relied on simple shots to capture their story, and rehearsed each scene to make sure everyone knew what to expect.

Join us later this month to celebrate the two-year anniversary of another timeless love story when we look through the COVID lens at the instant classic: “Portrait of a Lady on Fire.”


Brian Smolensky is a graduate of the United States Air Force Academy and a former Air Force Full Spectrum Threat Response Officer with over 15 years of experience in film and television production.


COVID-19 has affected every aspect of the film and television industry from pre-production through production, post-production, and distribution. This article is part of an on-going series designed to help you understand how the pandemic has changed the process of making movies and television by evaluating Hollywood classics. In this series — Through the COVID Lens — we consider how movies and television shows might change if they were filmed during this pandemic.


DISCLAIMER: This information should not be considered comprehensive and is not a substitute for hiring risk management professionals and personnel trained in COVID-19-specific procedures. Please consult with your insurance company, your investors, all applicable union reps, and health and safety professionals before starting production in a pandemic.