In the past two years, we’ve had the pleasure of programming two of Ira Sachs films at the Tribeca Film Festival: Keep the Lights On (TFF 2012) and Love is Strange (TFF 2014). Each film explores modern love and relationships in very different ways, with both utilizing Manhattan as a rich backdrop. Sachs’ latest stars John Lithgow and Alfred Molina as Ben and George, a NYC couple who are finally able to marry after decades of being together. Unfortunately, Ben loses his job at a Catholic High School as a result, and the two are forced to live apart with family and friends while they search for a new (and affordable) home.
We had the opportunity to speak to director/ co-writer Ira Sachs about working with collaborator Mauricio Zacharias, relationships, and why intimacy is key when telling a story.
Tribeca: You are no stranger to the film festival circuit. What is the most important thing for filmmakers to take away from the festival experience?
Ira Sachs: I think the most important thing is the development and expansion of community. We are stronger for the relationships we establish. That is what Love is Strange is about, to be honest. People don’t exist in vacuums. In a sense, festivals are forms of community organizing; they help to create relationships that can exist for decades. My closest allies during my many years of filmmaking have been people I met at festivals. I’ve been to Tribeca twice now and the vibrant connection it provides to its New York audience is so special. Showing a film in New York feels different from showing it in other places.
Tribeca: I saw Keep the Lights On in 2012 at the Festival but missed Love is Strange this year. I was so upset!
IS: That was a great screening for us. Plus, it was a happy screening, which I wouldn’t necessarily say for Keep the Lights On [laughs]. I think that difference really speaks to my shifting feelings about love that the two films depict. There’s an optimism about relationships in Love is Strange, which mirrors my own personal experience and feelings. I think what I fight for as a veteran filmmaker is to find a space where I can be intimate with my own stories and share them with an audience.
Tribeca: This is the second film you’ve written with Mauricio Zacharias. While both films explore the nature of relationships, they couldn’t be more different. What is it that draws you to relationships as subject matter?
IS: I think my deepest goal as an artist is to express my feelings about life and people through cinema. I also have a real interest in storytelling. The form of the narrative feature film is so unique and different from platforms like television. I think in the case of Love is Strange, the feature film format gave me the ability to develop complex characters who talk about very important things with a kind of humor and lightness.
If you consider independent film as not a subset of Hollywood but as an opportunity for economic freedom, then it can be inspiring.
Tribeca: If you had to describe your collaborator Mauricio in one word, what would it be and why?
IS: Friend. He’s the godfather of my son. I say “friend” because that relationship enhances the quality of our collaboration. We share a sense of curiosity and our values are very similar. We particularly value family, and family relationships are to a great extent, what we’re interested in examining through film. We are trying to produce a neorealist history of the ordinary becoming extraordinary. I could say a million more things about Mauricio. I have a lot of good instincts as a writer and he does as well, but he has an even more rigorous dedication to his craft.
Tribeca: Can you discuss your writing style?
IS: We talk for a couple of months about people we know and films we love and story ideas. We refine those ideas so that Mauricio can prepare a first draft while I do things like this. [laughs] We go back and forth with the script until ultimately it is handed to me because I’m the director and I really need to own it before I go film it.
Tribeca: Does the screenwriting process ever truly end? Were you changing things on set? Or in the edit room?
IS: I think you make three films in the course of making one movie. You write a film that you think is going to be the movie you make; then you shoot another film and that’s the movie. But actually the only movie is the third one that comes from the editing process. At each stage, you’re sculpting. You’re trying to be analytic about what value each scene has. I think clarity is the most important thing in the creation of artwork, but clarity doesn’t have to mean being obvious. It can be defined in any number of ways, but you’re responsible for the information that you’re conveying. I really try to understand the movie, and that happens a lot at the end during the editing.
Tribeca: John Lithgow and Alfred Molina are just fantastic as Ben and George. How did they come on board the project? Did you always have them in mind?
IS: I never write with actors in mind because you never know how things are going to work out. I did cast Alfred as soon as we finished the screenplay. Nine months later when we were close to making the film, John got involved. He and Alfred have a long acquaintance, but they were not close friends before we made the film. They are now. They have shared histories—both having lived in LA for their adult lives; both having been married for 30 years; and each is a kind of thespian.
When we got them on set, they were like two kids who had gone to camp together. They had so much to talk about. They inspired a kind of pleasure and ease in each other. It was all part of the history of Ben and George.
Tribeca: Given both of their long histories on Broadway, it was such a hoot to have them sing together at the piano.
IS: I think they were letting it loose. We hadn’t rehearsed that scene before we shot it. They had worked privately, practicing like an old couple would—but not in front of an audience. There’s this kind of raw quality to the scene, which I like. It’s not Broadway. They’re in their living room with their friends. I think that’s really what that scene is about.
There’s an optimism about relationships in Love is Strange, which mirrors my own personal experience and feelings.
Tribeca: I noted that John Lithgow has a credit on the film for “additional artwork.” Did he do his character’s paintings? Or was it someone from the art department?
IS: No, my husband did. Boris Torres. He also did the opening credits of Keep the Lights On too. He’s a painter, but he and John worked together to find a style. Boris painted the central painting in the film of the teenager on the roof. John can paint, so he was very excited to play a painter. He’s kind of a Saturday afternoon painter—it’s not his calling but it’s something he loves to do [laughs].
There’s one point early in the movie when they’re in their first apartment and the camera pans and you see a young man in Cuba. The camera pauses for just a minute – and that’s John Lithgow’s painting! [laughs] He’s very happy to have that painting in the film.
Tribeca: These actors can do everything!
IS: John’s a real renaissance man. He writes for the New York Times, in addition to being an established children’s book writer. He just did King Lear in the Park as a matter of fact. When I had the character of Ben be a guy who would read big fat tomes of nonfiction books when he went to bed at night, that’s what John Lithgow does. The books we got were the books John reads. In a way this film is about the inspiration we can get from our parents’ generation. I have been inspired by John Lithgow and Alfred Molina in an unexpected ways.
Tribeca: I’ve heard you’re not a big fan of the rehearsal process. How do you approach the actor/director relationship?
IS: Intimate, like a psychoanalyst. I think my job is to give the actors everything they need and get out of the way. And to be watchful. I think of the day of production, when you’re first on set, as the rehearsal. I don’t rehearse before that day. I talk with my actors, but we don’t actually block scenes or read lines with each other before then.
This strategy that I’ve developed that is not uncommon as it turns out. Sidney Pollack is the director who gave me permission to take this approach. If the actors know their lines, the script is there, the world is there – amazing things can happen. You want to give your cast that possibility of risk so I don’t want them to pin down their roles prior to the start of filming. It would be like pinning down a butterfly, and I try not to do that.
In a sense, festivals are forms of community organizing; they help to create relationships that can exist for decades.
Tribeca: Given your instinctive feel for the rhythms of NYC, I was surprised to learn that you are originally from Memphis. How did you work with cinematographer Christos Voudouris to capture NYC on screen?
IS: We really wanted to make a romantic film about the city. We watched films like Hannah and Her Sisters and Husbands and Wives. They were very influential, but we also wanted to tell a story that was our own and that showed a very different New York. We wanted to be accurate but also romantic. So I think we were attentive to the beauty of light in the city and the vistas that the movie occasionally opens up. I like to be attentive to the image without being precious. I care about the frame, but at the same time, I never want to shout how much I care about the frame. Christos uses natural light beautifully, which is apparent in his work with Richard Linklater in Before Midnight and with his Greek filmography. I also think it’s nice to work with an outsider.
Tribeca: There have been a number of indie filmmakers flocking to the small screen in recent years. What about television attracts them in your opinion? Would you every consider working on a series?
IS: For one thing, the goal is always an economically sustainable career, which inevitably draws indie filmmakers to television. With independent film, you can count on two hands – let’s hope its two hands! – the artists who can maintain economic stability and continue making films. It’s very challenging. Instead of being nostalgic or harkening to any kind of self-pity, I try to go back to Cassavetes, Orson Welles and similar filmmakers who I love who were not handed the opportunity to make their work on a silver platter. So if you consider independent film as not a subset of Hollywood but as an opportunity for economic freedom, then it can be inspiring. You have to earn that freedom, however, which is something I strive to do.
Love is Strange is now playing in New York and Los Angeles. Click here for showtimes and upcoming release dates.