Ira Sachs—Love Is Strange—8/11/2014

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), which he followed up with Married Life (starring Chris Cooper, Patricia Clarkson, Pierce Brosnan, and Rachel McAdams) and Keep the Lights On (with Zachary Booth with Thure Lindhardt). His latest, Love Is Strange, looks at the decades-long relationship, recently "made official," between characters played by John Lithgow and Alfred Molina. Sachs and I sat down to discuss the film at San Francisco's Fairmont Hotel.

Groucho Reviews: Despite the comical and dramatic struggles of the characters, this...picture has about it, I think a serenity that maybe your other films don’t. Not just a stylistic austerity but a kind of serenity.

Ira Sachs: Yeah.

Groucho Reviews: Do you attribute that to a newfound optimism in your own life?

Ira Sachs: I attribute it to a serenity in my own life.

(Both laugh.)

IS: I think that this is a film that I’ve made at a point in my life in which I’m happier with myself. And I’m more comfortable with myself. But I’m also less alienated. And I think that my films have always been more personal and I think they’ve revealed the struggles that I’ve had. And I think this film speaks to, in a way, a more optimistic moment in my life.

G: Yeah. I think the last time we talked, you had remarked that you had been thinking about how many of your protagonists were not happy with themselves.

IS: Right.

G: Or judging themselves.

IS: Yes. Well, the nice thing about Ben and George—I think why people want to be around them—and it’s also true about Alfred Molina and John Lithgow, is that these are men who know and like themselves and are not searching in that way. They’re searching for other stimulation, but it’s external to the extent of how art and music and beauty and love can sometimes be external. They’re really great people to spend time with.

G: The characters?

IS: I say that loosely because I mean the characters and the actors.

G: Right.

IS: You know, I think that they begin to merge.

G: Yeah. So the film depicts realistically strained marriages—

IS: Uh-huh.

G: And you’ve dealt with the subject before.

IS: Yes.

G: Though maybe in somewhat of a more arch context with Married Life. What do you hope Life is Strange conveys about marriage?

IS: That it’s unique for each of us. That it changes with time. Sometimes for the better, sometimes not. And this film is also about love in a broader sense. It’s also about familial love, paternal love, our communities, our friends—these different ways in which we all influence each other and how those things can shift on a dime at any one moment. And I think for Ben and George, it’s a pretty classic kind of set-up for the love story genre because it’s two people who are in love who have to face an obstacle together. And what we reveal in the story is the depth of their love, through how they do that.

G: Uh huh. There’s a sort of cinematic thread perhaps that runs through Make Way for Tomorrow, through Tokyo Story

IS: Mm-hm.

G: To this. What influence did those films have on you if any? You also reference contemporary French realism cinema and I wonder what pictures come to mind there—like Arnaud Desplechin, maybe?

IS: Well, I maintain a twenty-year long obsession with the work of Maurice Pialat. With this film, Christos Voudouris, my cinematographer and I spent a lot of time studying À nos amours and Loulou, which are two films of Pialat, and in fact would carry them around with us when we were shooting because there was something we were learning—an intimacy. This is my first film in which the camera is—in general we’re using a 50mm lens, which is kind of the most human. It’s the closest to the human eye. And that’s something—I’ve tended to use a longer lens, which in a way speaks to a more kind of alienated relationship. So there is a shift, and I think, for Mauricio [Zacharias] and I, my co-writer, Ozu in general has been life-changing. We started it—we both had the chance to go every week for about ten weeks to see a different Ozu film—when we first started working together—at the IFC Center in New York, and it was—for me, I think I’ve had these different heroes who’ve been like the hero of the decade for me. And when I was young, it was Cassavetes. In my thirties it was Ken Loach. And in my forties, I think Ozu is someone who I’m in struggle and whom I’m in admiration for.

G: Yeah. Interesting. So you have a history of prepping your actors by sending them on "dates."

IS: Yes.

G: So surely you must have set up a date for John Lithgow and Alfred Molina before the shoot. And if so, did any tales filter back from that?

IS: Well, I was on the first date—which I haven’t always been—which was at a steakhouse in Beverly Hills. And what was different about this case was these were two men who knew each other for twenty years. I actually, when I visited Alfred Molina’s house, in Los Angeles—on his mantle—and it was not placed there specially—was a picture of he and John from backstage at the Tony Awards ten years before. So they had a kind of collegial familiarity with each other that meant we actually—what happened during production was they formed a very deep friendship that I think is really key to the quality of their relationship in the film. They loved each other. And they share very similar histories. They both have been living in L.A. for their adult lives. They both are in long marriages. They both have been working in the theatre and in film as kind of thespians. Working men. And I think they were a great couple. It was a good match.

G: Yeah. It’s born out in the film for sure. So you tend to step back and let your actors deliver on their own steam.

IS: Mm.

G: What did you observe about the differing ways this cast prepared and their styles and approaches in techniques, formal or intuitive?

IS: Yeah. Each actor needs something very different in a slight way. In the course of production, I don’t rehearse before I start shooting. So none of the actors have heard the other actors say the lines, but each day of production is in itself a day of rehearsal. You do it many times. And you shift and you change it. For John Lithgow and Marisa Tomei, it’s—for John I think the business is very important. What is he actually doing? How is he moving? What are his hands—what can he use to kind of—what actions will he be doing? And he needs to get those right. For Marisa there’s this intense—and kind of extraordinary to observe—ambition for the film, for the moment captured on film to be complex real and alive. So she pushes really hard to make something that is beyond conscious occur in the moment. So, for example, when we’re shooting that scene of her in the bed with Darren Burrows, [playing] her husband beside her, and there’s no dialogue—I was watching her and I thought, "Oh, that’s why this woman has been nominated for three Academy Awards, because she can actually tell a story, write paragraphs, without dialogue. That’s a very talented person. Fred needs very, very little. He seems to come to set like fully—like fully ready. And he seems to walk into a scene as if he’s done it many, many times. That said, it’s important for him to find something new, and I think in this film, because of kind of—I think it helped that we had built really full worlds around them. So the world was real. And they could exist in it.

G: A sort of related question is setting the tone—the tone is sometimes a bit lighter here—

IS: Mm-hm.

G: Than usual for you. And then of course it’s always done in a realistic way—

IS: Right.

G: It’s never—there’s no kind of broad comedy here. Can you talk about striking the right tone and getting all the actors tonally on the same page?

IS: Well, there’s no broad comedy, but I do benefit by having comic actors in the film. You know, that’s—that’s a thing.

G: Yeah. They have a keen sense.

IS: That’s something that’s true in Make Way for Tomorrow as well, by the way, that those are comic—Beulah Bondi is a comic actress. And I think that there is a—you know, their timing is really beautiful. And I think it aids to bring the levity of the film. I also think that this film is a lot about acceptance. And with acceptance—for myself, I hope comes humor. Not to take everyone very seriously and none of us too seriously.

G: Yeah. So you’ve said—I think this was one of the previous times we talked, you said, “I really think of making a fiction film as a documentary. It’s exactly the same. You’re creating a situation where you use the camera to capture reality. And that’s something you do a lot of work to get.”

IS: Right.

G: So this is something that resonated with me with a couple of moments towards the end of the film. One, getting the rain out the window behind Joey, and the magic hour light in the sort of finale of the film.

IS: Right.

G: How much of that was luck and how much exquisite planning?

IS: Uh, the other quote that I try to keep in mind is Renoir says, "When you’re shooting, keep the windows open and let the world in." So the world is around you. So you have to be really attentive to it. There is always—"accident" wouldn’t really be exactly the word because there’s always weather.

G: Right. Yeah.

IS: So it’s like this is the weather we shot during. But I think—and I do still think—this film follows the same mode of you getting the world right as part of my job. But it’s a more traditional story in terms of its structure. In terms of, in some ways, its use of dialogue. Also, it’s not a film about self-discovery. And I think that means it’s written in a more classical sense in a certain way. But there are a million accidents—including that girl at the end who—I had actually cast a fourteen-year-old who couldn’t skate—which I only found out on the day of production.

G: (Chuckles.)

IS: And on the set I saw a ponytail go by about a block away, and I thought it might be a girl on a skateboard and my producer went running after her.

G: Wow.

IS: Followed her three blocks and then down into the PATH train and tapped her on the shoulder and said, "Do you want to be in a movie?" And that’s the girl who’s in the end of the film. And she came camera-ready.

G: And her name was Lana Turner.

IS: Exactly.

G: So you mentioned story structure. And one of the things I thought was interesting, was sort of conscious of while watching the film and then thought about, is there’s this kind of deus ex machina

IS: Yes.

G: That solves the central conflict of the movie. And yet it arrives just as suddenly as the conflict arrived.

IS: Right. True.

G: And life is kind of like that.

IS: Yes.

G: So I’m still curious. Did you have any hesitation about playing that that way, you and your screenwriting partner?

IS: You know, you try to ground the deus ex machina in reality, but you’re also aware that it is a device that has been used for a million years. If Shakespeare can do it, so can I.

G: Yeah.

IS: And I think there is something sort of—it’s a –this film plays with the classic comedy form as well as the classic tragedy form. But in that sense it’s the resolution of a romantic comedy. There was a book written by Stanley Cavell called Pursuits of Happiness[: The Hollywood Comedy of Remarriage]. And it’s about the remarriage comedies of the 1930s. Which was a genre.

G: Right.

IS: Because—I mean the reasons that they were made was that it was—you could deal with sex and love by un-marrying a couple and bringing them back together because they were already married. And It Happened One Night or Palm Beach Story

G: His Girl Friday.

IS: His Girl Friday. It’s a great book by the way—Stanley Cavell. And this is a remarriage comedy.

G: Yeah. Hm.

IS: In the classic sense. And I think with that then, at some point, the breakup needs to be resolved.

G: Right. What kind of hassles, if any, did depicting painting and piano give you?

IS: Well, I benefit by being married to a painter, Boris Torres, who did all the paintings for John in the film. They worked together in coming up with a style. And John is a painter. He’s a Saturday afternoon painter, as he would say. But he had the skills, which means that when he is painting, he looks like he is painting. Which is really important. Developing the narrative of that hero painting, the one central painting that plays throughout the film, was challenging. But it wasn’t as challenging as like a thousand knights or storming the castle.

G: Right.

(Both laugh.)

IS: It was challenging on my level. And the piano player—that little girl, Dovie Currin, is a prodigy. And so we found this wonderful child pianist. And Fred is really knowledgeable about music. So when he speaks about music it comes from depth. And I think for me a lot of what I love about Ben and George is in line with what I love about John and Alfred—which is, there’s depth there. And it’s depth that I aspire and admire. And I feel like it’s generational. I don’t know if you feel this way—

G: Yeah. Yeah.

IS: But I feel like people used to read more. They were deeper. I don’t know. It’s not true. But there is a relationship to words and music and beauty, which I love in these men.

G: Yeah. Did you talk with Lithgow about the way he should quietly resonate this kind of mental and emotional fragility? Because to me that’s such a—so striking and poignant part of his work here. Or is it a point that’s made explicitly in the screenplay? It’s subtle but it adds so much to the performance.

IS: I think it is in the script. He also found a very nice line to walk in terms of playing it in the character, which was—the character is older than John. And John is very robust. And so I think there is some acting in there as well and lots of choices that he’s making. But we wanted to keep it on this side of performance. If that makes sense.

G: Yeah.

IS: We were always trying to play in a register that was very human. And very simple. And I think that was exciting for these actors.

G: Yeah. So the tensions within Christian churches related to homosexuality vary from none to severe.

IS: Mm-hm.

G: And the political tide right now, it seems to me, is only gonna complicate that for religions, right?

IS: Uh-huh. They’re gonna lose people.

G: (Laughs.) So yeah, I was going to say, where do you see this going? In the film George gets nowhere with the authority, but then he takes it to the people, which seems to be, again, the way things are going.

IS: Uh-huh. That’s true. Well, times are changing in a really wonderful way. And to me, this film is historically accurate to our moment in the sense that the situation that starts things off is one that is very real and is happening often. We read about a case in the Midwest where a man who was a choir director was fired from his job for marrying his partner. And that was kind of a good instigator for our story. What is really different for me in terms of this film and what makes it as historically precise is its optimism. Like, I couldn’t have made this film five years ago. Because I didn’t feel the same way I feel in my body. And as a gay man and as a married man and as a father and as a part of the world. And I think that’s the bigger change. And that’s really what the film is about is—I think that this is a time where this relationship between Ben and George is one that people know and people admire and people desire. And that’s exciting.

G: Yeah. Another thing I really liked about the film is how you avoid spelling out what’s going on in Joey’s head, which I think most writers would probably do. And I think it speaks to the title of the film—

IS: Yeah.

G: As much as any other plot thread in the movie which makes it an appropriate character to end on.

IS: Thank you.

G: And you’re also not visually heavy-handed about the kind of "seasons of life" metaphor.

IS: Right.

G: It’s nicely subtle. But now that you’re here to talk about it, do you care to wax intellectual about Joey’s growing pains?

IS: My films are always more subtle than I can be—because they involve more of me than this, in a way. And I’m always—I’m funnier than this. Like, I have a sense of humor. And you know—

G: You can do some jokes if you’d like, too.

IS: And that’s where—just imagine that John Lithgow and Alfred Molina are sitting there and they will be making fun of me and telling some jokes, but unfortunately, they’re working. [John]’s playing Lear right now.

G: Right. Yeah.

IS: I think that this is a film that comes to me at a point in which I’m aware that life does not last forever. And that’s both poignant and something that I can accept. And I think that that generational kind of turn is one that is really beautiful. And the brevity is not tragic. It’s sad. But it’s something that, you know, around the corner is a boy falling in love.

G: Yeah. Uh-huh. So I should probably mention Chopin—and your choice of Chopin. What’s your history—

IS: Chopin is this year’s Arthur Russell.

G: (chuckling) I was gonna ask what your history is with Chopin and why you decided he was right for this film.

IS: Well, I mean I mean that because Keep the Lights On—all the music was Arthur Russell. It was a library of Arthur Russell, and we constructed a score out of this previously recorded music. And with this film it’s all the music of Chopin. And there will be a soundtrack. And I—I work with a writer, Mauricio Zacharias, and he is much more knowledgeable about music than I am. And he wrote into the scene with the little girl the Chopin prelude, and it was then that I started diving into the Chopin waters. And with my editors, Affonso Gonçalves and Michael Taylor, we realized early on in the editing process that if we were interested in using piano music, no one would be better than Chopin to narrate it and to comment upon and to enhance the beauty of the film. You know, to me, what I like in movies is where the music is both part of the movie but also has its own integrity. A good artist is someone who is very clear about his separation of sound and image. And I think separation and yet unity is what you’re after. What’s great about Chopin is that it is so diverse. And it’s narrative and it’s funny and it’s light and it’s very, very deep. And I think the range of emotions in it worked perfectly for the film. And for us, we started to hear how Gershwin was used in Manhattan, and that was certainly an influence for us—that it added to the romance of the film.

G: Mm, yeah. I’m almost out of time here but I always like to pick your brain about what you think you might be bringing to the screen next.

IS: Oh. Well, it’s in my bag in the back—the first draft of the new script I’m working on with Mauricio, which is a film about two boys in New York—it’s the third in a trilogy of New York stories. In this case it’s about two boys who develop a new friendship, and for various reasons they decide to take an oath of silence. And both stop talking to their families. And it’s another film about relationships, intimacy and New York real estate.

G: (laughing) All right. Well, that’s a good place to end. It’s always a pleasure. Thank you.

IS: Yeah. Thank you—for good questions.

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