“The Nature of Global Capitalism is Such that [Stories About] Gay Sexuality Are More and More Difficult to Finance”: Passages Director Ira Sachs in Conversation with Stephen Winter
The following interview with director Ira Sachs by director Stephen Winter was published in Filmmaker’s Summer, 2023 issue and is being reposted today as Sachs’s film Passages arrives in theaters from MUBI.
There are acclaimed films about filmmakers set during production—Fellini’s 8 1/2, Truffaut’s Day for Night and Fassbinder’s Beware of a Holy Whore, to name three. But there are far fewer set during what might be an even more psychologically fraught time: post-production. For some directors, it’s when a film wraps that things become unstable. The ersatz family of cast and crew retreat, the militarized schedule lessens somewhat and the adrenaline rush of shooting is replaced by introspection, anxiety and self-doubt.
In Ira Sach’s Passages, we see just enough up top of Franz Rogowski’s arthouse director Tomas’s on-set behavior to know that he is, as Sachs dubs the character in this interview with Stephen Winter below, “a piece of work.” In the movie’s first scene, set during the briefly observed Paris-based film-within-a-film’s final shoot day, Tomas erupts in anger over the inauthentic walk down a staircase of a bewildered actor. Hours later at the wrap party, he dances with an attractive teacher, Agathe (Adèle Exarchopoulos), before sleeping with her, then returning home to his graphic designer husband, Martin (Ben Whishaw), and casually revealing his infidelity. We sense this isn’t the first time.
While completing his film in time for a Venice premiere, Tomas, played by Rogowski with sneering impetuous force, keeps upping the drama, first by professing his love for Agathe and then, when his marriage implodes, being unable to accept that he has surrendered Martin. Needing all the love, all the adulation, he’s a walking personification of numerous listicles that outline “10 Warning Signs You’re Dealing With a Narcissist”—a personality type that might be incompatible with mature contentment but not with the business of making movies.
It’s, of course, tempting to read the character of a film director as a stand-in for a film’s actual director, but there’s no ventriloquist effect being attempted here. Sachs brings the knowledge gleaned from seven features not to a depiction of one emotionally messy artistic fireball but rather to the more complicated ways in which creative lives intertwine, giving all three characters in his love triangle aching, full arcs. Whishaw is beautifully understated, registering frustration, hurt and quiet strength, while Exarchopoulos—pointedly, a teacher of young children—conveys the excitement of this sudden affair but also Agathe’s skepticism that someone like Tomas is down for the long haul. Also worth highlighting is the fluid cinematography of Josée Deshaies, a first-time collaborator with Sachs who previously lensed Jacques Nolot’s Before I Forget, one of three films he cited to Winter—whose films include Chocolate Babies and Jason and Shirley—as inspirations. Below, the two colleagues and directors discuss drawing inspiration from an earlier era of queer cinema, revealing character through sex, mixing realism with glamour and more. Passages enters theatrical release via MUBI on August 4, with streaming to follow.—Scott Macaulay
Winter: It is so wonderful and thrilling to see this film come from you at this time, not just in terms of where you are in your artistic trajectory, but in terms of where the world is right now. It is so human-forward, sex-forward and audacious. You rarely see sex in a movie anymore, and you’ve got these accomplished, unique, sexy sex scenes. Which came to you first, the story, characters and idea of this film, or that you were going to explore sex in your next story?
Sachs: I have two 11-year-olds and I’ve been thinking about the birds and the bees. How do you talk about sex with your family? And what do you know about sex? In some ways, it’s easier for me to do that in cinema than it is in life. Cinema gives you freedom. It also gives you collaborators, who make certain things possible that you maybe wouldn’t be able to make as frank or as straightforward without them. So, in terms of your question, I would say the story came first. But before the story came the idea of making an intimate, character-based drama about people in their bedrooms, in their apartments, who are in the middle of questions of love and relationships and sex. So, I had a kind of film that I wanted to make, and then there was the story itself about these three characters. And I felt the film would be more alive, more accessible and more exciting for people to watch [if it were] not closeted—to make it in a mature way that was [true] to my own experience and also to my own relationship to cinema.
Winter: Your films always have this “ripped from your diary” quality, but you’ve also said throughout your career that the autobiographical qualities in your films are also quite fictionalized. I have been meeting a lot of young filmmakers who are doing autobiographical material, who try to work with their real stuff and keep it honest and effective. How do you create work that is drawn from your life and yet is so completely different? What advice do you have for someone that wants to attempt such a thing?
Sachs: I would agree that my work is personal. I would not say that this is an autobiographical film. I think other work that I’ve done—particularly Keep the Lights On, The Delta and Forty Shades of Blue—are, from the beginning, much more autobiographical than this film. But I seem to make a lot of films about men, particularly white men, trying to understand their power and place in the world, which seems to me less a mea culpa [than] an autobiography, really. Meaning, I’m interested in my own position in the world, the power I have and my feelings around power, and I think that is central in this film. This is a film about a director and a friend of a director. And the questions of what it feels [like] to have power and then to lose power are ones that are deeply personal to me.
Winter: I know the character of Tomas is not autobiographical because he is—
Sachs: A piece of work.
Winter: He’s a piece of work. He is sexy and selfish, equally. Beautiful and almost hateful. You’re so drawn to him, but you also cringe from him. He’s so beautifully embodied by your actor, Franz Rogowski. Is he a sex addict or a narcissist in your mind? What does love mean to him?
Sachs: I will say, I wrote the film for Franz. So, when you talk about autobiography, in a way, this isn’t his autobiography either in any way, shape or form. But I think I try to make films about people that I have known and do know in the process of making the film. I would say to younger filmmakers that you maybe start in a place of autobiography, but, eventually, your film becomes about the people who are in front of the camera, and you always have to be open to that. The film feels pulled from life because it is. Something interesting Franz said to me when he watched the film is that it shifts between being about Tomas, Agathe and Martin, the three characters who are in the script, to being about Franz, Adèle and Ben, the three actors. You’re always watching both. And I think allowing that to be the case for the viewer is part of my strategy.
Winter: Tomas is a film director. You’re a film director, and you’re also a film scholar. The character of film directors has been essayed all kinds of ways across cinema. What was a thing you wanted to do differently in depicting a film director?
Sachs: Less what I wanted to do differently and more what I got from certain representations. What really inspired me for this film is movies in which the film director plays the central character, because I was interested in exposure. I’m thinking about films like Frank Ripploh’s Taxi zum Klo, Chantal Akerman’s Je Tu Il Elle and Jacques Nolot’s Before I Forget. What’s impressive about those three films is the maker is actually front and center. The maker is the film. I’m not a good actor—I’m not a good presence, I’m too uncomfortable—so I can’t do that. But I’ve felt like the risks that those three filmmakers took were ones that carried me; specifically, Taxi zum Klo and the Akerman film, where there’s no great distinction between the physical relationship between characters and the actors and the rest of the story. [The sex] doesn’t stop the film, it doesn’t change the film. It’s central to the purist texture of the film. I think that’s an interesting way to think about sex in cinema.
Winter: You mentioned Ben Whishaw, the movie star, actor and genius. He is so kind, detailed and gentle here. Everything that comes out of him was so real and honest. And when his character has a turn, which I won’t reveal, it is magnificent. I have heard many, many gay men of all walks of life describe him as their dream husband.
Winter: He’s played gay in films before, he’s played sex scenes before, but this is probably the first time he’s played a gay husband who has these intense sex scenes that have been beautifully executed and where the sex seems to be part of the arc of the character. What was it like for you and Whishaw to collaborate on this character, who seems very much to be the heart of the story? What was it like to collaborate with this out gay actor, especially coming from the era when you and I started, when it was hard enough to get an actor to consider a gay kiss in a movie, much less gay sex scenes? Now, we have movie star actors who are also out and who will do that with you.
Sachs: Stephen, you’re implying that there’s been progress, which I always have to question because I don’t see the history of queer cinema as a story of progress. The body in cinema has been more and more difficult to find, and the nature of global capitalism is such that gay sexuality is more and more difficult to finance. The inspiring movies I’m referring to are these films that were made in the late 1970s and the early ’80s. I guess that’s what the initial impetus was, to make a truly independent film. I had to watch images that I wasn’t seeing in cinema today. I’m just saying, we’re in conflict with the images that we see and we make. We’re in conflict with our times.
Winter: This is also the second film you’ve done set in Europe and produced in France by Saïd Ben Saïd.
Sachs: My hero.
Winter: You’ve made a shift into becoming almost a European filmmaker, at least in terms of funding, casts and locations. Are you going in this direction because it’s more hospitable for the kind of filmmaking you want to do? Or is it a result of your own evolution of interests?
Sachs: It’s a combination of things. It’s a result of the stories that I’ve wanted to tell in the last five years. It’s also certainly in response to a financial possibility that I’ve found in Europe that I have not consistently found here [in the United States]. I’m an American filmmaker, and I’m influenced by European cinema, Asian cinema and—particularly and probably most significantly—French cinema. But my relationship to French cinema was less a reason to make this film here [in Paris] than my relationship to Paris, which is decades long, very familiar, very comfortable. I’ve had relationships there, dear friends there. It’s a place I could make a life, and so could my characters.
Winter: Speaking of collaboration in Paris, and all the details that go into making a film, I want to shout out that fabulous halter top that Tomas wears to meet Agathe’s parents. The costumes in your film, the style vocabulary for each character, are so specific and gorgeous. Your costume designer, Khadija Zeggaï—who is this fabulous person?
Sachs: She’s most fabulous in all realms, and she’s a great collaborator. She worked on Isabelle Huppert’s clothes in Frankie, and we became very close. In this production, what was the crucial moment for us was knowing that we were working in a realist style, but the costumes could be something beyond realism, something that elevates the movie to what I would call the level of cinema, which is a level of glamour and icon and fabulousness. That was important: You’re both watching realistic cinema and you’re watching a movie. So, Adèle is playing an elementary school teacher, but she is consciously dressed like Brigitte Bardot and Jeanne Moreau. We’re thinking of an iconic body, an iconic face, and that was a big decision because it was one rack or another rack. And we chose the rack that had the elements of glamour. I think those two planes are very important to play with for this film.
Winter: You were [styling] Adèle like the ’70s romantic adventures that starred Leslie Caron, Jacqueline Bisset and Julie Christie.
Sachs: Well, we watched, for example, Rossellini’s Voyage to Italy. I mean, the clothes that Ingrid Bergman wears are just something else, and they have another language that speaks to the audience. Khadija understood that and went off and found amazing things. But I have to say, to find amazing things is one thing, but then to find actors [who] can pull them off in a natural way is another. We actually had these three actors who have the looks as well as the strength. It’s not pretty if you put that halter top on me.
Winter: Or me, as well. I think maybe for one weekend in 1992.
Sachs: The other thing about this film—which has been nice to discover, which I can’t say was my intention—is that it has a lot of humor and joy. This is something I learned from Rip Torn when I worked with him on Forty Shades of Blue. I learned a lot from him, and one thing was that tragedy means comedy. He understood that deeply as an actor. You can’t play tragedy. You have to play pleasure; you have to play joy in order to bring a depth to things. The three actors I worked with all understand that intrinsically and organically.
Winter: Brilliantly so. I would say this is the most propulsive movie about a dark, sexy love triangle that I can recall. The heart of it is full of intense, dark feelings and actions, but the thrust of it is happy. You’re happy to be with these people. You’re happy to be in Europe instead of [the] U.S.A. You’re happy to be with these folks because they’re trying. And even though they might be sometimes failing spectacularly, sometimes winning small victories, the yearning they have to try to make things right is so wonderful. And every shot is a feast. How do you prepare for a day’s shooting in terms of getting these wonderful aesthetics with the people and the faces placed just so in your frames? Does the terminology come first, or the action?
Sachs: My pre-production is a lot of work. I don’t rehearse with my actors before I shoot—I spend time with them, but we don’t have official rehearsals. Strategically, I don’t want them because I don’t want to have conversations about motivation and subtext. I avoid those kinds of conversations with my actors, but we spend a lot of time in the wardrobe. I remember Franz was like, “I’ve never met a director who wants to spend so much time trying on costumes.” But I like costumes, and I like aesthetics—I think they’re important. And just trying on clothes is a way to get to know people, a great rehearsal process. On the other hand, in the five weeks before I’m shooting, I’m spending six hours a day with my cinematographer talking about the visual language of the film and creating storyboards shot by shot, scene by scene, which don’t dictate what we do in production but really are a way of working out a visual strategy, which has continuity and fluidity and consistency and thought.
Winter: Going back to Ben Whishaw, how did the two of you work together and build this character? Did you have a pre-existing relationship with him as you did Mr. Rogowski?
Sachs: Ben and I met on Instagram Message. I can’t remember what started it off, but there was some sort of like, wink or hello to each other at some point, but no more than that. When I was casting the film, he was my ideal person for this role, and we share an interest in everything around queerness, art, familiarity and belief that life is about people and relationships and friendships. There’s a kind of familiarity to him as a person for me. But that all came through the process of making this film. And the thing about Ben—have you seen Who Am I This Time?
Sachs: It’s an American Playhouse [1982 film directed by Jonathan Demme] with Christopher Walken and Susan Sarandon, a small-town story. Walken plays an actor who’s just this modest person, then he plays Stanley [Kowalski], and he’s something else. Ben is like that to me. He doesn’t need or want attention. Chris Cooper is like this, also. Their modesty is profound until they work. And in the moment in which the camera is on, something else happens, which has a level of genius.
Winter: Swoon to all that.
Sachs: I want to just add one other thing, which is that Ben is a risk-taker. You can discuss with actors what you’re going to do, but eventually they’re the ones who take off their clothes and position themselves in front of the camera. Ben was a daredevil, and he also has a lot of pride in who he is and his sexuality and his body. He has pleasure in those experiences that I think is central and not something I could direct without [him] bringing it to the movie.
Winter: You and I grew up in a world where the gay and queer men of the generation before us were in the process of leaving prematurely or had already gone from HIV and AIDS. Does the sex that you put in this film fit somehow as a tribute to the lost generation of queer men that we came up through? They were so sex positive, lust forward, passion forward in their lives, and so are these characters.
Sachs: It’s funny, I thought you were going to end the sentence by saying, “And so are these actors.” The characters are having sex privately, without shame, in their own rooms, but it is the actors [who] are saying, “This is part of storytelling.” It’s interesting which comes first. In the conversations I had with Ben, Franz and Adèle, I would put images in front of them that gave them liberty.
Winter: And you feel that made the crucial difference in not only executing these wonderful sex scenes within the wider drama but also keeping the film so alive overall?
Sachs: Sex scenes, there’s no dialogue. My films, in a way, have moments of improvisation, but mostly they are scripted. Sex scenes are not scripted. You have actors who are writing sentences and paragraphs and commas and exclamation points in a way that is difficult and which these three actors do very, very well. They tell stories within those scenes. That’s why the scenes work. My direction isn’t what makes them interesting. My direction is maybe part of the rigor and openness of the scenes, but what makes them interesting is the narrative that these three actors create within those scenes, which to me is just brilliant acting. It doesn’t mean it’s all acting. Nothing is happening physically between people, but there is a story being told in each of these sex scenes. You can watch them and be like, how did they make that up so well that we all believe it?
Winter: It gives one life to see such radically honest yet straightforward depictions of life.
Sachs: I’m glad you said “life” because it’s not to me just sex, it’s life. And I want to answer your question, which is, I never would’ve theorized about the honor I hope this film does for a previous generation that we’ve lost to AIDS. I never would’ve thought of it in that kind of way. But, yes, I’m constantly going back to the period of artists who were making work right before I came to New York and were bold motherfuckers.
Winter: You want to throw out some names?
Sachs: I want to talk about the entire punk movement. I want to talk about Jack Smith, Klaus Nomi, Cookie Mueller, Arthur Russell—many, many people, who lived in a less bourgeois moment and had different expectations. Obviously, each had their own [expectations], and I can’t say what these people wanted and didn’t get. But I would say because work was, in a way, less global, it had more individuality. It was trying to appeal, partially, to people’s own communities, and that was valuable. Understanding the value of making work for your friends—maybe that brings us back to the beginning of this conversation, which is, this film I made because I wanted to see it.
Winter: Speaking of legacy and community, let’s pivot to Queer|Art, the amazing organization that you founded.
Sachs: It is an organization I founded in 2009 and is still going strong with a wonderful group of people who now run it. Not me, but I’m still very involved in it. Stephen, I would say we know each other because of Queer|Art more than because of the history of our individual filmmaking, which is why I asked for you to do this interview with me. We share a history, which has meant so much to me. And that history is one as queer people in New York City, who survived the AIDS epidemic, who wanted to make art, who share in loss and who also share in a lot of pleasure. And through Queer|Art, I think we’re allowed to be with each other without having necessarily an economic reason to do so. That’s really what I’m talking about in terms of the ’70s and ’80s—people were gathering for reasons that were less industry-produced. I mean, it’s hard to find the words for how necessary it is for me to remember different ways of being as I try to sustain a career that is honest with myself.
Winter: I agree with you. I think we became friends in the Berlin Film Festival, when I was there with Chocolate Babies, and we circled each other’s circles for the decade to follow. It was when Queer|Art [launched that] we had a non-business reason to come together to enjoy cinema, to enjoy film, to enjoy each other, to enjoy our queerness and to develop and strengthen intergenerational friendships and relationships. I think it’s remarkable that an organization that was originally about, “Let’s get together at IFC Center and watch The Children’s Hour with Shirley MacLaine and discuss it” has evolved into this amazing mentorship program, which I believe seems to be primarily serving the people in our community who require the most attention in terms of what they need to do culturally for their lives: Black people, brown people, women, trans people, working-class artists. And one thing I admire about your films is they always talk about race, class and gender without sometimes being directly about that. Reflecting on your position as a cisgender gay white man, what do you think about making art today in these trying times, when you see how the legacy of the Queer|Art organization has moved together with your films?
Sachs: All times are trying. Is this time worse? I would say you can’t really ever say that. It is not a coincidence that this film premiered at Sundance and Berlin Panorama because, as even a person who’s been able to maintain a career making feature films for a long time now, to do so within the industry is not easier. Look at most of the queer filmmakers we grew up with. They’re either working in series to sustain their lives, or they’re working in non-queer narratives. Often, the films included in festivals are straight films by gay filmmakers or gay films by straight filmmakers. Maintaining a career of making queer personal work year after year is next to impossible because of the systems in place, because of the patriarchal men who run these places. What makes me happy about Queer|Art is that it is an apparatus counter to that that I can be a part of because I need to be able to create these images. I need to be able to find the support emotionally, financially and creatively, so I have to create alternative systems. And if my time ends up being over, that’s all right, too, because I’ve had the power. I think this film is to some extent a question of what happens to everyone around people like me. People think I was thinking of Fassbinder with the character of Tomas, but it wasn’t really that. It was more Agathe’s position as a woman, her position from a different class than these two men who were controlling her life. And you could also say this about Keep the Lights On, but there’s a bit of a horror genre to this film.
Winter: Yes, but also very much Fassbinder—for me at least. It’s always equal parts drama, comedy and straight-up horror.
Sachs: That’s right. Fox and His Friends, for example—in a way, [Passages is] a remake of The Innocent by Visconti. But it’s also highly influenced by the idea of being the third wheel among powerful rich men that you see in a film like Fox and His Friends.
Winter: I think, like Fassbinder, you are fascinated and appalled by Tomas’s character, who’s so selfish and narcissistic, but your heart is with the woman. Your heart is with Agathe.
Sachs: I hope your heart shifts in the course of watching the movie. I don’t know if that happens to you. I feel like my heart is with all of them, and that’s the only position from which I can direct. And I feel that ambiguity around identification is part of what gives the film a suspense.
Winter: All your films have that. There’s always an underlying tension with the way you present narratives, whether it’s about real estate, gentrification or, here, which side of the love triangle you are focused on. But in the end, I feel you get all three of them.
Sachs: Yeah, I think that the strategy is that in some ways I direct the camera and give the actors action, and there’s a script, which Mauricio Zacharias, my wonderful co-writer, and I have created together, that gives the film narrative order. But everything else is up for grabs. It’s all about space, and all that ambiguity, which makes the film interesting.
Winter: That’s an understatement. Okay, last question. How many shooting days, 20 or more?
Winter: 24. I was close.
Sachs: I wanted 31.
Winter: You wanted 31?
Sachs: It never gets easier. I’ve had 30, and it wasn’t easy. It’s always hard. Every day is hard, so that’s the way it goes. Sometimes, it seems frustrating to have all of these people together and to spend all of this money and time and to just have 24 days. It feels brief. But what you do is get serious before you start shooting and figure out, as much as you can, what you need. And you have to know what you’re doing. That’s it.
Winter: What is your favorite part of the differences between the way that European crews work versus U.S. crews?
Sachs: My favorite part is every weekend every single person on your crew has gone to the movies and seen the newest X, the newest Y, and none of them are from Hollywood. In France, they are really, really engaged with the world of cinema as both pleasure and interest.