Frank J. Avella Talks To
Photo: 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
J. Avella: Your work is relatable across
the boards, not just to the LGBT community, but
also to all people.
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.
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?
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.
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?
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
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?
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.
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.
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.
J. Avella: Can you speak a little about the
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
J. Avella: I think this is his best performance.
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
J. Avella: Did you guys have a rehearsal
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.
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?
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.
J. Avella: I’m currently going through
a Fassbinder film marathon phase.
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
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
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.
J. Avella: Can you tell me about your next
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.
J. Avella: New York City is definitely a
major character in both Keep the Lights On
and, now Love is Strange…
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.
J. Avella: I think it’s a Valentine.
I would call it the modern-day Manhattan.
…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.