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Frank J. Avella’s
Film Column

Frank J. Avella Talks To
Ira Sachs

Opposite Photo: Ira Sachs

Ira Sachs, one of the most significant American filmmakers working today, just completed his fifth narrative feature, Love is Strange, about an older gay couple (John Lithgow and Alfred Molina) who are forced to live apart after they dare to get married and one loses his job because of it.

It’s a rich, dense, deeply moving movie that speaks across generational lines and is, quite simply, one of the finest films of 2014. I had an opportunity to speak with Ira about his work and, this new gem in particular.

Alfred Molina, John Lithgow and Ira Sachs

Frank J. Avella: Your work is relatable across the boards, not just to the LGBT community, but also to all people.

Ira Sachs: I think part of that is that I’m still interested in film as a place where people see themselves and for many people film has become an escape and television is the place where people find reflection more commonly these days. But that’s not my feeling about movies. I still go to understand myself better and to see my own stories (even) in other people’s work so I’m attached to that relatability.

Frank J. Avella: There’s a natural-ness, a realism to your dialogue and character behavior and an organic journey in your films. Your last two were co-scripted by Mauricio Zacharias. Can you tell me about the collaboration process?

Ira Sachs: He’s the Godfather to my son. We share a lot of values in life as well as in cinema, which I think is very important for a good collaboration. He and I are working on our third film. We began working together on Keep the Lights On…We talk a lot. We spend weeks talking about stories and other movies and characters and people we know. We eventually arrive at some structure, which is our plot. And some set of characters, which is our world. And then Mauricio does the heavy lifting of the first draft, which is to take that amorphous set of ideas and turn them into a rough screenplay. Then we begin to work back and forth…and eventually it has to be mine because I’m the director.

Frank J. Avella: I loved that you dared to depict an older gay couple and the real and true struggles they face—financial and otherwise. What drew you to that subject matter?

Ira Sachs: I’m in the middle of my own life and I have an interest in both youth and age. It’s a perspective that I sit in…I know that life is not forever and I can remember being young and I think the film is in some way about that shift in perspective. I’m also aware that I’ve had just a few people—mentors--in my life. People whose lives I’ve observed that I can try to model my life after and particularly my relationships. And that includes my mother and my stepfather who have an imperfect but beautiful 45-year relationship. It also includes my great uncle and his partner who were together for 43 years. Also, there’s a certain generation of older men and women who I admire and try to learn from. I think the film is, in a way, an honor of that generation that I see passing.

Frank J. Avella: At the film’s beginning, George is fired for daring to marry his lover of 39 years—even though it was okay when his sexuality wasn’t obvious and public. It’s infuriating. And it’s the catalyst for their lives being shattered but, also, for bringing them closer together. Did you know, first hand, of couples facing similar travails?

Ira Sachs: I can send you a long list of stories from around the country that are similar. When Mauricio and I started writing, we knew we wanted to write a love story about love that had the potential to blossom and grow with time. We read about a case in the Midwest in which a man was fired from his job as a choir director for a Catholic church due to his marriage. And it was a great starting point for a story...What I liked was that this story set off a narrative which was about a couple overcoming an obstacle together and to me that’s the definition of a great love story.

Frank J. Avella: It’s a very ambitious story. You have three generations onscreen; all at different points in their respective relationships—with the young boy actually learning from the older couple. I found myself relating to all three at one point or another—especially Marisa Tomei’s character. There was something so emotionally cathartic there for me.

Ira Sachs: That’s great to hear. I feel like she is me, in some ways. Maybe more so than even John Lithgow or Alfred Molina’s characters because she is at the point in her life that I relate to which is when you know there are limitations and you have to figure out how you situate yourself and your sense of yourself within those limitations. You know it’s not forever and you know you’re not going to be able to do everything. And that acceptance is really what all my other films were about: people who didn’t accept themselves, who struggled to do so. With Ben and George (Lithgow and Molina) and the quality of the love they have for one another is based on the fact that they accept themselves individually; and they like themselves individually. And that is something that for many people, and specifically for me as a gay man and my generation, is very hard won.

And that’s really what Keep the Lights On was about in lots of ways, getting to the point where you can let go of the shame, which is a part of our coming to understand ourselves.

Frank J. Avella: Can you speak a little about the casting process?

Ira Sachs: Alfred Molina was the first person cast, soon after we finished the script. and he was involved from the beginning. It was about a year between that point and when we actually started production. Lithgow was the last person we cast in the film. We shared an agent who recommended John and gave the script to him and John loved the script. He said that not since Terms of Endearment had he read something that he connected to so deeply.

So I have this great cast of people who are doing something that for each of them is a little different than what they’ve been asked to do in previous films and it’s an opportunity, they felt, to portray characters closer to themselves in some ways. Marisa Tomei has said it’s the first time she’s been asked to be a woman with experience and wisdom and who has her history as part of her and not something she’s trying to hide. And she’s asked to be her age, which is not something she’s usually asked to be.

Lithgow, I met him when we started working together and we spent a couple of days before the shoot alone. And I discovered a person I’d never seen onscreen: a very passionate and intellectual and creative and open person who is also very at ease with himself. And I think stylistically he’s always asked to be big and in this film I asked him to be small and precise and very human and he likes that.

Frank J. Avella: I think this is his best performance.

Ira Sachs: It’s the prime of John Lithgow. With this film and his playing Lear in the Park and doing Edward Albee on Broadway with Glenn Close in the fall…Here he is entering his seventh decade and he’s taking on Shakespeare and reading voraciously and trying dangerous risky experiences as an artist and that’s something we can hope for ourselves.

Frank J. Avella: Did you guys have a rehearsal process?

Ira Sachs: No. (laughs) We did not. It’s a strategy I developed over the years. I was actually given permission by Sydney Pollack. He was executive producer on a film I made called Forty Shades of Blue and Pollack did not rehearse his actors and, for me, that was a revelation that that was allowed. And what I found is that by not rehearsing before the day of the shoot, everything has the possibility of being new and discovered while we’re shooting.

Frank J. Avella: You’re style reminds me of some of the groundbreaking filmmakers of the 70s--like Sidney Lumet, Martin Scorsese, Sydney Pollack, Woody Allen—people who made movies about New York. I can tell that you love the medium so much. You achieve beauty in even the most painful scenes. Can you speak to me about your influences?

Ira Sachs: With this film specifically, Husbands and Wives and Hannah and Her Sisters were big influences, which are multi-character films set in the heart of New York City. And films that use humor to invoke drama, which was something that I think this film does as well. It’s lighter than my previous films but, hopefully, no less resonant.

I love (Robert) Altman who I feel has a very democratic eye. He’s interested in everyone that’s in the frame and his attentions to the smallest gestures of human frailty. Cassavetes was a big influence for me when I was a young man--the rawness of those performances. And, then, (Rainer Werner) Fassbinder is to me the filmmaker who cajoles and challenges me to be brave.

Frank J. Avella: I’m currently going through a Fassbinder film marathon phase.

Ira Sachs: About five years ago I did the same thing. Those movies, over time you realize how genius they are and by watching them together they all seem more fascinating and brilliant. He has this great quote where he says he’s going to ‘fix it in the next one.’ That fearlessness is what gives his films their energy and lifelike quality.

I run a series called Queer/Art/Film for about 4 ½ years, once a month at the IFC Center.

We pick an artist we love and then we ask them to pick a film that inspired them as queer artists and then we screen it and discuss it collectively. It’s very much a community organizing principle.

We need to gather in places that are not just bars and not just online and we need to talk and share our experiences generationally. That’s part of my own life as an activist.

Frank J. Avella: Can you tell me about your next project?

Ira Sachs: I’m writing a third film with Mauricio. Third in a trilogy. It’s about two boys in New York City who become best friends, who for various reasons, their friendship is forbidden by their parents and as a result, they take an oath of silence and they stop talking. And it’s another film about relationship, families and real estate.

Frank J. Avella: New York City is definitely a major character in both Keep the Lights On and, now Love is Strange

Ira Sachs: I’ve lived here for 25 years and it’s the city I now know inside and out. We were inspired by Woody Allen, but we wanted to paint a picture of a city that is quite different than his in the sense that there’s a diversity of race and economics in our film. Economics play a big part in this film. Like what kind of space are we allowed to have as New Yorkers and how do we hold onto it. I’m also very interested in the fact that there’s a kind of New Yorker that’s disappearing—people like Ben and George who can’t quite make it here anymore…I think this is a romantic film and I hope it conveys some of my love for what the city has given me.

Frank J. Avella: I think it’s a Valentine. I would call it the modern-day Manhattan.

Ira Sachs: …When we decided to use Chopin as the score of the film it inspired and evoked for me the use of Gershwin as a kind of comment but also an aesthetic pleasure that music can have in one’s life and as a reflection of the city.








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