After his debut feature The Delta, writer-director Ira Sachs took the Grand Jury Prize at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival for his sophomore feature Forty Shades of Blue, starring Rip Torn and Dina Korzun. His latest, Married Life, stars Chris Cooper, Patricia Clarkson, Pierce Brosnan, and Rachel McAdams. Despite his suffering from bronchitis, Sachs gamely discussed Married Life, married life, and other topics by phone during his San Francisco press stop.
Groucho: If I understand correctly, you were intent on doing a genre film, something with a crime or a noir element. What drew you to that at this point in your career?
Ira Sachs: Well, I actually had been watching a lot of Joan Crawford movies. And Bette Davis movies and Edward G. Robinson movies. And I was struck by—having watched a bunch in a row—how they were both great entertainments and yet somehow they always spoke to me on a level of metaphor, at the same time. And that somehow I felt that they were resonant while at the same time being fully entertaining. I think that that combination was something that as an American filmmaker made a lot of sense to me. I have always felt—all movies are about suspense, to tell you the truth. Like I think even Forty Shades of Blue, my previous film—I was reading a lot of Patricia Highsmith when I made that movie. So I think there's always the question of suspense in terms of what characters are going to do with and to each other. That's always been of interest to me. So—I wanted to make a movie like the ones that I was watching, yet I knew—since I'm not a suspense filmmaker, I had a feeling that it would end up being its own kind of thing, which I think it very much is. It isn't a classical suspense film. I think it's very much something more modern.
G: I think you make a good point that suspense is really just another word for dramatic tension.
IS: Exactly. I try to, as a writer and a filmmaker, think about what is the question each scene is asking in order to hold my interest. And I think that that's true whether you're talking about Hitchcock or Antonioni, really. There's a mystery to the image that I think is significant to the audience's response to it.
G: So you pored through some pulp novels and you struck on the novel Five Roundabouts to Heaven. What made you decide to adapt that particular story?
IS: Well, it was a page-turner, from the beginning. And I think that it spoke very directly to the sort of domestic truths that I had experienced in my own life, that were touching to me. I think also midway through the book and the film, you discover that one of the characters you thought you knew has her own secrets, and I think suddenly at that twist, I felt that each of the characters became more collectively human. When we realize that each is set in their own sort of secrets of contradictions. And I think it ultimately succeeded as a humanist story told in a genre form.
G: The character that Pierce Brosnan plays is our window into the story; he's our interested observer and also the opportunist who's waiting to make his move. But the prime mover of the story is the Chris Cooper character, it seems to me. I want to get in your head a little bit about how you see him. In the press notes you describe him as "co-dependent," and I wonder what you had in mind when you said that.
IS: Well, I think that there's a certain kind of narcissism to his decision to kill his wife, because he in a way believes that she would be better off dead than without him—It is a kind of co-dependent relationship, because you imagine that without you, the other person is nothing. And I think, in truth, Pat is very much her own person. Without her husband.
G: His brand of being romantic, yeah, is certainly very strange. It's profoundly condescending. Another thing you said in the press notes that I think might be interesting relative to his character is that "All too many people have difficulty differentiating their individual selves from the bonds of a long marriage." In his determination to break that bond, is he threatening a part of himself?
IS: He believes it is so important, his marriage to Pat, because it's what he's given his life to, for so long. People say in a relationship, two halves make a whole, but I think in a way this film is about the fact that two wholes make a whole. And that there is some sense that only when Harry becomes self-aware, at the end of the film, does he become a full enough person to even be in a good marriage. (Pause.) Possibly.
G: The final image of the film, without giving anything away, is a bit of a Rorschach test. One could see it as a very warm and healing image of a relationship, especially after what has come before, but the final scenes, I think, are also, on the eve of the '50s, a confirmation of social pretense, aren't they?
IS: Well, I think that, as you say, people read into this film through the lens of their own marriages or their own relationships. For me, there is a kind of empathy that I feel towards all the characters and towards all their compromises and all their sort of grand attempts to make things of their lives. You know, I hope that it's a movie that people can experience initially as a kind of a ride. If that makes sense, as a form of entertainment. It's interesting to watch the movie with a real audience inside a cinema. And it reminds me of the pleasures of going to the movie theatres. Because every time there's a twist or a turn in the story, there's a kind of collective sigh or laugh or shriek by the audience that I think is part of the energy of the movie itself. The movie is relishing the pleasures of going to the movies.
G: I don't know if you're the type to read the criticism as it rolls in, or when there's a festival screening, read the—
IS: I read everything. (Laughs.)
G: When you read that stuff, do you find that people see more in your film than you intended, or less, or is that a frustrating thing for you?
IS: No, because I think that the film is a work of art that people are going to respond to personally, and humanly, and through their own perspectives. So you expect to have different responses. If you're going to make something that everyone loves, then you wouldn't want to necessarily be a filmmaker. I think that there have to be individual tastes to a work that you believe in, and then other people can decide if they fall asleep.
G: I just want to go back to how the project unfolded. I think, if I'm correct, that you first started thinking about it as early as 2001, and then you began working with your screenwriting partner Oren Moverman on it, and then of course it changed when the actors came on. So how has the final product evolved from your original concepts, including I remember that you said it might take place in San Francisco originally, right?
IS: Right. One thing we learned in making the film and editing the film is that the basic premise of the story is comic. And I think that's something we didn't necessarily know when we set out to make the film. Meaning that a man would want to kill his wife instead of divorcing her. And I think, because of that, we felt that it was important that the audience be allowed kind of permission to enjoy the film as—to not take it too seriously from the beginning. I mean that's why we created this animated opening credit sequence, which I think has a sort of joyous nature and a sort of playful nature that we wanted the rest of the film to follow. I think one of the interesting tensions of the film, however, is that we approached it, particularly as actors and director, utterly directly. There's no irony in the performances. Patricia Clarkson has said that some of those scenes for her, it felt like she was doing Bergman or something. She took it very seriously. And I think that within the world that we created, which is kind of light and has a certain kind of energy and a certain kind of "movie magic" kind of feeling, the emotions are very kind of modern and contemporary and multi-dimensional. You know, I feel like always Cassavetes is a big influence for me. And I think, weirdly, that's one of the tensions in the film is this kind of realist approach to interpersonal relationships within a very formal structure of a genre film.
G: You mentioned the credit sequence. I wanted to ask about some of the visual cues that you lay into the film. What sort of directives did you give to Peter Deming, your DP, and your designers for the look that you wanted to achieve?
IS: Well, the film is set in 1949, but we didn't want it to feel like it was set in the past. So I think we approached that period as if yesterday was today. So, for example, working with Michael Dennison, my costume designer, we never put clothes on any of the characters that they wouldn't feel comfortable wearing today. We took away any sort of very significant signposts of the past, in a way. Because I think once we created this world, we wanted the actors to live in it as if it was fully modern, fully present-day. And in terms of Peter, I was really drawn to his work with David Lynch, specifically Mulholland Dr. and Lost Highway. And I was always struck by his use of shadow, and a kind of richly textured image that I think is like Technicolor without the Technicolor. There's a kind of vivid nature to what he brings to the image. We actually watched a lot of Gordon Willis, to tell you the truth. A lot of films of the '70s that allowed for use of shadow. And we played with shadow in the same way that we played with light. Sometimes in the more emotional scenes, all the lights are on. We wanted it to feel as if the characters had nowhere to hide.
G: Was it part of the visual concept at all to draw attention to timepieces, or did I make that up?
IS: Well, I think that a film like this is driven by objects, at some level. It's hard to describe: no one's asked me that question. There is a clockwork nature to the plot that I think is--individual objects become significant in the movement of the story. And obviously clocks and time is one of those.
G: I bring it up because—in the wonderful sequence with Brosnan in thje movie theatre and he's watching Pandora—, and one of the striking images we get clipped out of that film is the cracked hourglass, and there's the talk of "We're getting older now" and the sort of weight of time on the relationships.
IS: Well, I think that one of the things that's been striking to this film in terms of the response is that this is a film about adults. You know, some twenty-year-old young men saw the film in New Jersey last week, and they came up to me and said they were so glad that the film was about adults. Even if they didn't necessarily understand everything that was going on. They kept thinking it was going to turn and be about the children of these characters, and I think that this is a film about people in the middle of their lives. And I think that that in a way has become more of a rarity in contemporary cinema.
G: Absolutely. Hollywood is driven by the youth market, so we don't see films for adults too often outside of the art house, I guess.
IS: I would agree. And they're not made anymore. By the studios, certainly.
G: There's been a lot of talk about the mid-range film being an endangered species. In taking a step up in this film, did you find it actually easier to work with a slightly bigger budget or do you still find a struggle?
IS: No, I think the film dictates what the budget will be. So far I have felt in very good hands in all three films that I've made with the producers and the line producers of the film. They've figured out what I need and they've gotten it. So what was most satisfying about this film was actually that with a bigger budget, a film made with movie stars within part of the Hollywood system, it felt like all my other work. Which sounds kind of like—I don't mean this in a Mickey Rooney kind of way. I just mean that it was an organic process that began with the script and the story we wanted to tell. And I felt like, throughout, that I was supported to keep it organic in terms of how the movie was made and conveying the story to the audience.
G: I want to talk about the process of working with the actors on the set. I know that rehearsal is something you prefer not to do, so you give the actors that trust to come to the set having done their preparation. But then you've said it's like being a therapist. The actors all communicate to you what their needs are, and I wonder if you could talk a little bit about the unique needs—in a positive sense, as an artist—of each actor and how their craft differed and what you were able to give each of them.
IS: Each of the actors—let me see how I should put this. Each actor needs a different goal of what they're aiming to achieve in terms of what they feel is honesty. Chris Cooper, I think, has an incredible facility to read—this film is not one that was improvised in any way, shape or form—but I think what an actor does is to improvise between words. And I think that one of the things that was so wonderful about working with Chris Cooper is that he can almost say anything in silence. And through his eyes. And I think that that is an incredible—he's like a fine clock. And has an incredible ability to manipulate an expression in an instinctual way. Pierce is, I think, like an actor from the old school. He's going on take one or two. Other actors kind of hit their mark at like seven or eight. And I think Pierce is of the old school in the sense that he's gonna give you everything that he has at the beginning. I think what was wonderful for me was discovering what a great physical comedian he is, and I think in this film he has a certain kind of lightness of agility that's, to me, Cary Grant-like in a certain way. There's a fluidity to his body and his movements that I think is quite beautiful. I think what he also gives in this film is a certain kind of vulnerability that we've never seen. Though he's constantly the wry cad, you feel that he has real needs and real fears. And I think that's what gives a kind of resonance underneath the surface.
G: As a gay man, I wonder if you see yourself as having an anthropologist's insight into the insititution of marriage, given that social sanctioning doesn't make that an option for you.
IS: To me, "married life" could be gay, could be straight: it's the nature of the long relationship. And I think of married life as a particular kind—I think of myself as married to my boyfriend, and yet the institution is not one that we participate in because of political reasons. But the issues are at hand, are there just the same as in any relationship. So for me married life is a state of being more than a political institution, in this film.
G: It is universal, this idea that you've talked about of what is the person lying next to you thinking? There's this leap of faith in any long-term relationship. On balance do you see the idea of a long-term relationship as—you said you didn't want to communicate a cynicism with the film, so do you therefore sort of think that that's an endorsable thing? It should be our greatest goal?
IS: I don't make that choice for anyone else. I think that clearly a lot of people are driven to find primary relationships with one other person, and I think that there's a lot to explore there, but I think that a lot of these issues take place in any kind of relationship, whether it be with your parents or your people at work or someone you're with for a night or an afternoon. I think the issues of intimacy are really what I'm interested in.
G: No one really has a choice in dealing with most of these issues, ultimately. It's a matter of how you'll face them, 'cause we'll all face them.
IS: Yeah, for me one of the trajectories of the film is Chris Cooper's character beginning as someone who knows the least about the people he's with, and at the end of the film, he knows the most about the people around him. And to me, self-knowledge and some form of acceptance of the flaws and the weaknesses of the people you're close to is an important part of growing up, in a way. And that acceptance is one that can lead to new possibilities of intimate relationships.
G: Lastly, let me ask if you have on the horizon a specific project in mind, or have you started writing your next film?
IS: I am working with Oren Moverman again, which is wonderful, on a script called The Goodbye People, which is set in Los Angeles in the end of the 1960s and is based on the work of a novelist and screenwriter named Gavin Lambert.
G: Alright, sounds interesting. Thanks very much again for taking the time out to talk to me, especially with bronchitis.
IS: Ah, yes, thanks a lot for writing [the piece]. I appreciate it.
[For Groucho's review of Married Life, click here.]