The Tragic Real-Life Story Behind Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise



  • Before Sunrise is a cult classic that revolves around the interaction between two main characters and the places they visit, making it a realistic movie about love.
  • The film is inspired by a real-life encounter that Richard Linklater had with a woman named Amy Lehrhaupt before the movie’s release.
  • Unfortunately, Lehrhaupt passed away in a motorcycle accident before she could watch the film, adding a tragic element to the story that adds to its relatability.

Before Sunrise has reached cult classic status throughout the years, and holds up as a career-defining movie in Richard Linklater‘s filmography. In the film, a young American, Jesse (Ethan Hawke), and a French student, Celine (Julie Delpy), meet by chance on a train and decide to jump off in Vienna to spend an unforgettable evening getting to know the city and each other.

Before Sunrise is one of those movies that barely has any plot, revolving entirely around how the main characters interact with each other and the places that surround them. It also happens to be a realistic movie about love, even more so when one knows about the tragic real-life story behind the film.

Before Sunrise Is Inspired by a Real-Life Encounter

It’s easy to understand why Before Sunrise continues to resonate with audiences to this day: its timeless relatability hits viewers right where it hurts, provoking a sense of longing for things that never really happened. Understandably, the film prompts audiences to reflect on all the people they met by chance, all the painful farewells, and, most importantly, all the times one thought about approaching someone, only to let the opportunity slip away and never return. Before Sunrise projects all sorts of “what-ifs” in the minds of the viewers, but unbeknownst to many, the same feeling applies to Linklater himself.

There’s a true story behind the heartwarming events of Before Sunrise. It dates back to 1989, six years before the release of the movie, when Linklater stumbled upon a young woman named Amy Lehrhaupt. The filmmaker dropped by Philadelphia for one night to visit his sister before making his way home to New York City. He met Lehrhaupt by chance in a toy shop, and, just like in Before Sunrise, they spent the night together, from midnight to six in the morning. The encounter went in a similar direction as Jesse and Céline’s: topics would vary between art, philosophy, or life’s absurdity, and gradually, amid kisses and flirtations, they developed a powerful bond that Linklater was eager to conserve.

Related: If You Liked Before Sunrise, You’ll Love These Movies

The Tragic Story Behind Linklater’s Before Trilogy

Different from how things ended in Before Sunrise, Linklater and Lehrhaupt exchanged numbers and tried to keep in touch. As it happens to be most of the time, distance didn’t do them any good, and the fervor of their relationship gradually faded away. There was also a considerable age gap between the two, too, with Linklater being 29 years old at the time of their encounter and Lehrhaupt about 20, hence it didn’t help that they were each at different phases in their lives. The filmmaker eventually started seeing someone else, and he ended up losing touch with Lehrhaupt completely.

If that conclusion wasn’t bittersweet enough, the story takes an even more tragic course: unbeknownst to Linklater, Lehrhaupt died in a motorcycle accident on May 9, 1994, one year before the release of Before Sunrise. She never got to watch the movie, and Linklater wasn’t privy to her accident until years later, when one of Lehrhaupt’s friends, who knew about the encounter, wrote a letter to the filmmaker, who was devastated. In an interview for The New Times, Linklater mentions that he sometimes contemplated the possibility of Lehrhaupt showing up at one of the film’s screenings, expecting a weird interaction like, ”Oh, hi, I’m Amy. Remember me?” — of course, he didn’t know she had passed away.

Related: Jesse and Céline’s Relationship Timeline in the Before Trilogy, Explained

Alternatively, a similar situation occurs in Before Sunset, the second movie in the Before trilogy: just like Linklater made a movie based on his encounter with Lehrhaupt, Jesse wrote a book about his night with Céline. The two reunite nine years later, when Céline attends one of Jesse’s readings in Paris, and that’s how Before Sunset begins. In the same New York Times interview, Linklater recalls having the idea for Before Sunrise while his encounter with Lehrhaupt unfolded, and even mentioned it to her. He remembered thinking, “If I could just capture this feeling I’m having right now.” It was a rare case of momentary stupor at realizing a moment will surely become a memory.

Instead of engaging in a failed attempt to reenact the memory of his evening with Lehrhaupt through people and places that are no longer there, Linklater decided to frame that memory in time through his movie. That’s how Before Sunrise strikes viewers as such an honest depiction of what falling in love feels like. It’s true that things don’t usually turn out the way people want them to, and that’s where fiction and art come in to color our lives. Regardless of whether Before Sunrise was a tribute or a response to his encounter with Lehrhaupt, Linklater managed to convey intimacy with familiarity, in a way the movie, and the whole Before trilogy, hits very close to home for the audience.

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