In conversation below with fellow writer/director Todd Solondz, Ira Sachs calls his latest work,Love is Strange, “a middle-aged film” — not because it’s focused on midlife issues, but because “it has perspective on both what youth felt like as well as what aging can lead to.” That’s a beautiful formulation by Sachs on this warm and generous New York movie that charms by unexpectedly opening its perspective across both neighborhoods and generations.
Love is Strange opens with a flurry of activity as two older gay men — a music teacher (Alfred Molina) and painter (John Lithgow) — take advantage of New York’s Marriage Equality Act by tying the knot in a beautiful garden ceremony. But the happy event sets off a chain reaction that finds the couple losing the Greenwich Village apartment in which they’ve built their life together. Homeless and in economic peril, they temporarily split up, seeking shelter from friends and family. They are soon interwoven in the lives of these supporters — including a novelist (Marisa Tomei) trying to balance her writing career with motherhood — and vicariously experience their struggles, large and small.
As always, Sachs — whose films include his first, the Memphis-set gay teen picture The Delta; the Sundance Grand Jury Prize-winning Forty Shades of Blue; the period noir Married Life; and last year’s more astringent New York relationship drama, Keep the Lights On— avoids both overt melodrama or obvious gags, instead adopting a gently humorous, ruminative and ultimately sagacious tone. Still, as Sachs tells Solondz below, the film’s more direct storytelling, emotional openness and relationship to the audience (at its Sundance premiere, the audience was left in tears) are no accident, being the product of not only an evolving filmmaking philosophy, but also changes in his own life.
Both directors who have steadily pursued New York independent filmmaking careers for more than two decades, Solondz, whose films include Happiness and Dark Horse, and Sachs discuss film as therapy, low budgets as liberation and why filmmakers must understand the business. Love is Strange is out this summer from Sony Pictures Classics.
I saw the movie the other night. It’s tender, it’s lovely and, more than that, it’s a loving film that you’ve made. It’s observant and uncluttered. You’ve taken a very comical setup and played it for poignancy. Could you talk about the movie’s genesis? To put it most simply, I think in my 40s I learned how to love better than I had previously. Certainly for me, it took a long time to be ready to be in a relationship that had the potential to grow and blossom with time and not just destroy everybody involved, which had been the subject of my previous films in some ways. This might sound trite, but I think a lot of it had to do with coming to the point that I liked myself well enough to be open fully to other people. And I think that changed the filmmaking as well. The sort of tone you’re describing very much feels to me like how I hope to be in the world — hope to be as a partner, as a human and as a father. Those are all things that I think are part of the story.
I don’t want to use the word therapy, but would you say that, in a sense, you’re able to work out through filmmaking certain problems on a personal level and that that process helps you grow as a person? Or is it the opposite, that you are growing or changing as a person and your films are reflecting that? I think my films are directly personal. They’re not, for the most part, autobiographical — though sometimes they have been as well — but they’re very much reflections of how I feel in the world at a given time, creatively and personally. I don’t consider them therapy, though I do discover things about myself and the world in the process of making them. I tend to think the therapy comes first, whether that’s specifically psychoanalytic therapy, which I am no longer involved in, but have been in the past, or just personal discovery. I think the films reflect who I am, not who I want to be.
So they’re not autobiographical in any literal sense? Well, I made one film that was. My last film, Keep the Lights On, was certainly autobiographical in a more classic form. I mean, it turns into fiction, but it began with diaries and direct memories of events in my life. Love is Strange is not autobiographical in that nature, though all the characters are people I know. I mean, I based a filmmaker living with his novelist wife and their teenage son on any number of people I know being a filmmaker in New York who has a lot of friends facing those challenges of balancing your creative and personal lives. That’s just one example.
Do you feel that because so much of your personal history — where you are and how you grow as a person — informs so much of your work, that on some level you are limited artistically by that reality? Or, rather, do you feel there is so much more to plumb in the depths of the experience you have lived? I guess I feel that there are always new things to discover aesthetically, structurally, narratively and autobiographically in my work. It doesn’t feel like there’s a boundary of possibility. I mean, certainly, I have the limits of whose lives I can know well. There’s an intimacy in my work, which means I’ve only made films in Memphis, where I grew up, and New York, where I live, because those are the places that I feel most deeply familiar with. On the other hand, I feel like I’m pushing myself to new things in the form, in the shape of the work. So, for example, at this point in my life, I’m much more engaged with strict notions of storytelling, narrative and the viewer — the obligation of the artist toward the viewer. I’m less engaged, if I can use this term, with the tropes of the art film. The art film is no longer as engaging to me as it was 20 years ago. I go back, to be honest, to questions of storytelling that I have most intimately discovered in the novel. And I’m grappling with what is possible. How much can story reveal character? How much can story reveal deep, deep feelings and insights? I’m trying to sharpen that tool, and that’s a challenge.
It is an endless challenge to figure this out, I find. I think we both share a certain commonality in that way. I suppose we both could be categorized as hedgehogs, according to that Isaiah Berlin essay. Do you know that essay? You have to remind me.
There are two different mentalities in which artists operate. There are the hedgehogs, who explore more deeply the material they know most intimately. And then there are the foxes, who have a certain aptitude and predilection for going from genre to genre, changing direction. So, Howard Hawks versus Ozu?
Yes. Well, something I’m thinking about while having this conversation is that you and I are, a) still here making films, which is a feat in itself; and b) we’re still, in a way, working through some of the same questions and styles. Though we develop, we’re not veering far off from where we began. And I say “Ozu” because for me, right now, a filmmaker who made 40 or 50 films about domestic life, each one similar and yet utterly unique, is really an inspiration. [He makes me] feel like I can just keep going, keep diving in, and that there’s going to be another story from a kind of obsessive interest.
I appreciate what you’re saying. It makes you wonder, though, if Ozu lived here today, how he could survive as a filmmaker since so much filmmaking outside of the studio system is about appearing, at least superficially, fresh and different from whatever you did last time and whatever else is out there. Anything that doesn’t have an obvious hook in that way has a much harder struggle. I would agree with that, but I would actually say that the independent filmmakers who have sustained careers have done so partially on the basis of the repetition of their brands, to be completely commercial and capitalistic in my language. I mean, your brand might be both your cross to bear, but it’s also the thing you can sell.
I like the idea of Ozu talking about his brand. I suppose you can buy the T-shirt and ponder that. [Laughs]
So, Love is Strange, it’s very sunny. And I mean that both on a literal level, as well as emotionally, spiritually sunny. It’s very romantic. Yet, it feels like an ode or valedictory to an older sense of New York. There’s a mixture of regret on the one hand and hopefulness on the other. It leaves a very different impression than your other films. Was that a deliberate choice? Or, does your sense of the film differ from what I’ve described here? No, I think I connect to your description. I would say the distinction I would make would be that I don’t feel nostalgic for an [older] New York. More than for places, I feel a loss of certain people. I feel an awareness that there’s a [vanishing] generation of people, including my parents’ generation, primarily, who are the same as Ben and George’s [generation]. They [miss] certain things that I will miss, and that makes me want to cherish them through the story. I think that’s partially what Love is Strange is about; it’s about paying attention to this generation that is in the process of disappearing. As will we, by the way. I think that the film contains that awareness as well. I describe this as a middle-aged film in the sense that it’s a film that has perspective on both what youth felt like as well as what aging can lead to.
Ever since my first film, The Delta, I’ve been trying to be “less German”; I’m not German but I was very enamored by German cinema and people like Fassbinder, in a way I felt that wasn’t true. It was darker than me. One of the basic challenges for me has been to be lighter in my work. I think it helps because I’m probably lighter in my being, so it comes easier to me. But it’s a challenge. How does the work maintain levity even when it’s about serious things? You are someone who’s done that very well.
Well, it’s a kind of navigation that you figure out in the process — not even just when you’re writing but while you’re shooting, while you’re in the editing room. It’s about finding the right tone that speaks to the material and what you want to convey. By the way, since this is Filmmaker, what was the budget and how many shooting days? Oh, $1.23 million was the budget. The shooting days … 27?
Was it a reasonable amount of time or did you feel, “Gee, I wish I had two extra days; it would’ve made a substantive difference?” I have always been very consciously aware of the relationship between aesthetics and economics, and I recognize that part of my job as a producer is to engage with those two things equally. So I never go into a shooting situation where I don’t have what I need. Every film I’ve made has felt to some extent like the others, whether that be a film like The Delta, which was $225,000, or a film like Married Life, which was a multimillion dollar budget. The experience has been similar because I’ve worked with people who I trust and who understand what I need, and that involves a certain engagement as the writer/director or, in this case, the co-writer/director. If I feel that the schedule is too heavy, I will adapt. I’ll start editing [the script] before I shoot so that I’m not in a situation that feels pressured in a negative way.
You have taught at New York University in their graduate film program. Is this the kind of advice you give to your students? I talk about the fact that there are no excuses, and there are also, I believe, no compromises. Filmmaking is all about decisions, so you either make a decision that is right for the film or wrong for the film. You’re always having to negotiate in that process; it’s not like there’s any situation where choices don’t need to be made. So, as a teacher, what I try to share is that as filmmakers, we are responsible for our product and for our films. We are the last man standing or what is it called?
There’s no one to pass the buck to. Right. The buck stops here. So, I think I encourage people not to make excuses for work that doesn’t work.
That’s good. They’re lucky they’ve got you as a teacher. Now, let me ask you, next — I’m maybe going out of order. That’s okay. People like that in articles. You don’t have to be sequential, you can be associative.
Okay. [Laughs] So this is just arbitrary, then. One of the things I love about the movie you just made, Love is Strange, is conceptually how simply you designed the film. I love that that simplicity feels like an aesthetic choice. But, as you have been suggesting, was it also one connected to the producer pragmatist inside you? Or, would you be a happy camper if you could continue making movies on this scale, never getting the opportunity to work again with a larger budget? Very much. Again, you know, I’m following the model of what is possible, and this budget was great. I would like to pay the people I work closely with, particularly those who have devoted now decades of their careers to work with me, a little bit better so that working for me [can] be part of a living wage. That would be the only expansion that I’d search for in my next film. A living wage.
How did you get your start as a filmmaker? What was your background prior to making your first feature, The Delta? I saw that years ago and loved it. I remember that motel scene with the guy. It was very intense. I’m actually looking out on the backyard of my childhood home in Memphis, where we shot a scene of The Delta, and I can remember that day shooting. I began in the theater. I was a very bad actor in my adolescence and then, as a teenager, I started directing plays, which I did throughout college at Yale. My first semester freshman year, I directed Antigone, by Jean Anouilh. Eventually, I started creating my own theatrical events and became interested in performance art and things like that. In ’86, I spent three months in Paris. I didn’t speak French, ended up watching 197 films in three months and discovered that I liked movies most of all. Then, when I was a senior in college, I applied to film school. I applied to NYU, University of California-Los Angeles and University of Southern California, and I was not accepted.
To any of them? Any of them. I always wonder if this was the reason, but I wrote an essay about Mussolini’s son, who was sent to Hollywood to learn the Hollywood method so he could go back to Italy and make Fascist films. I was very politically involved, and I wanted to learn the mechanics of conventional filmmaking so I could try to somehow subvert them in my own work. That was my essay, and I was not accepted. It was actually a blessing for me creatively because the advantage I think those of us who didn’t go to film school had — although many who go to film school also have this — is that I didn’t have a stage in which I was “a student filmmaker.” So for my very first film, I wasn’t competing against other students, I was competing in my mind with Cassavetes, Tsai Ming-liang and Claire Denis — all the people who were very much a part of my film education. And I took myself very seriously, which I think is necessary. I came to New York around the same time as you, Todd, and I was surrounded by people like Apparatus, Christine Vachon and Todd Haynes’ company, which was giving friends the chance to make their first short films. Kelly Reichardt, Larry Fessenden, Jonathan Nossiter, Karim Aïnouz, Oren Moverman — [we were] a bunch of people who thought well enough of each other to take each other very seriously and, thus, support each other. That’s been something that’s been hugely important to me. I made my first film, Vaudeville, about a traveling theater group, based on the experience of having just done a traveling production in the theater. I had been the assistant to Eric Bogosian, and he saw the film and said, “My first suggestion to you is to stop watching Cassavetes.” And I pretty much have since then. It was a film made by influence, you know? From there I made my first feature in ’96 and actually a very significant chapter of my career was then trying to make my second feature, Forty Shades of Blue, which took nine years. Getting through that was a crucible, it was ridiculous and ultimately, I did. And that was transformative, but not transforming. I mean, the challenges continue to be the same since that moment. You’re always trying to refigure out how to work within the system and what the system provides you. That’s something I know we share, and that’s obviously what filmmaking is about. It’s not like our generation has certain things that are more difficult, but it wasn’t any easier for some of our heroes, either.
There are always different obstacles. But if it doesn’t destroy you, the whole business, as it is said, it’ll make you an even better filmmaker, a stronger one. Let me ask you, if you could go back in time, back to the time of The Delta, what might be the most critical changes you’d make to the way you produced, directed or wrote that film that might have made it less of an ordeal to make that second film? Oh, well, I wouldn’t change the film, but I think there are certain things I learned. I think I over-rehearsed that film. I did months of rehearsals with the nonprofessional actors, and I now don’t rehearse my actors at all. And I think that’s been a process of discovery in terms of my own strategies about what kind of performance I’m looking for. But The Delta was a big inspiration on Keep the Lights On because I remembered a time when no one gave me the permission to make a movie. And with Keep the Lights On, I felt the same way — that I had to take that permission. It was liberating to think that, a) I had no parents, aka, no producers above me; and b) I didn’t have an obligation to anyone but myself to tell the story in a certain way. And c) I could be bold and open with my sexuality. Between those two films, I treated my queerness more as a metaphor. You could say that Forty Shades of Blue or Married Life were about certain things that were inherently queer, but the text of the films were heterosexual in a way that I think was a form of closeting. That’s not to say that the only thing I have to write or tell are gay stories, but I am interested in the fact that I didn’t tell gay stories for 15 years.
To what extent did winning the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance for Forty Shades of Blue alter the landscape for you? How meaningful in general are these prizes? I feel perhaps the most significant ways an event like that affects an artist is that it gives you affirmation that you’re not crazy for doing what you’re doing. Internally, a level of self-confidence is boosted in a way that I think is very meaningful. The high, both professionally and personally, is, you know, hours long and does not sustain itself. But there is, on another level, a sense that what you’re making matters to someone, and to those in your field, which I think gives you chutzpah, you know? It is encouraging. But, at least for me, it certainly didn’t transform the landscape, though that wasn’t something that I necessarily was searching for. I mean, I’ve been independent, and I think that sometimes means you don’t get to make [a film] because you don’t have the money, but it also means that you can preserve and develop your own voice.
But it’s also true that since you made Forty Shades, you haven’t had to go nine years without making a feature. I wouldn’t say that’s because I won a prize at Sundance. I would say that’s because I’ve consistently tried to figure out how to make things. I think you and I share an interest in what’s going on in the industry. And I notice that with you. You know what’s doing well and what’s not. We’re not inattentive to the mainstream, what’s going on in Hollywood in general and what’s going on in international sales. I mean, we can have this conversation.
You can’t afford not to be interested in those things if you want to survive. That’s one of the reasons I like having these conversations with you. You can’t be in the industry of narrative filmmaking if you don’t somehow try to understand what’s going on because it changes so fast. If you want to be a part of that, you have to continue to be observant of the changes.
Do you feel that Keep the Lights On now forms a kind of template for how you want to continue making movies? That film was financed by 400 people; Love is Strange was financed by 26. That was a significant difference in the kind of effort it took to raise the money. So, I hope the finances, at least, don’t get harder for the next little while. I don’t expect to be in a sweet spot for very long, but I hope for the next decade I can make films of this scale and find, with not terrible difficulty, the money to do so. That’s the goal.
Well, I hope so, too. We have to be optimists for each other, but an optimism that is grounded in some understanding of the realities here. Yes. What was very inspiring for me was Last Address, which was a real turning point.
That’s the short documentary you made a few years ago, about the apartments of artists who died of AIDS? That was a beautiful film. Yes. I had worked for three years on a film that I couldn’t get financed and never did. It was the first time that had happened to me, where I just hit a dead end, a brick wall. I was teaching at NYU, and I was encouraging my students to make good films, films that mattered, not because of what they were about, but because they were of the highest level they were capable of making. And so, I was asked to make a short film, and I took the opportunity and made a 10-minute film for $3,000 that was at the top of my aesthetic kind of possibility. I made it with wonderful collaborators, I was rigorous about it intellectually, and it ended up being the film that more people have seen than any of my other work, for various reasons. It touched people. The fact that I could do that on $3,000 and have it be as good as any film I’ve made was very encouraging.
That sense of possibility, of not being limited just to the 90 to 120 minute format, can be liberating. Yes, and even if you’re going to stay in the 90 to 120 minute format. My next film was Keep the Lights On, and I figured out a scale that I, with a lot of hustling, would be able to achieve economically. I had a sense that I could raise $600,000, and I did. So, I assessed what was possible, and I didn’t spend a lifetime, which had been what it felt like between The Delta and Forty Shades of Blue, trying for what was not possible. On the other hand, if I had given up that folly I wouldn’t have made Forty Shades of Blue, which I’m very grateful I did. So I think that all filmmaking has a bit of folly in it. And I think that’s wonderful.
When you say you had the sense that you could raise $600K, that only comes from having been at this for two decades. You couldn’t have had that sense when you were first starting out. So it’s the experience you accrue over time that helps inform your sense of what is possible. Every day. You’ve talked about this film, Love is Strange, being in a way, the simplest aesthetically. I think small shifts in aesthetics were something that I was very open to in this film. So, for example, in my previous films, I tended to use longer lenses and shoot from a kind of tangential perspective. In this film, I am shooting with primarily the 50-millimeter lens, and I’m open to the frontal shot. I was very open to being close to the actors in a way that had not been my style before. And maybe that’s because I was just more comfortable with myself, you know?
The last thing: any advice or thoughts you have for aspiring filmmakers? And note I don’t say young aspiring filmmakers. Because you could still be aspiring even if you’re not so young. Make films about the places, the people and the experiences you know more about than anyone else does. And if that means only making films about your parents and your friends, that’s okay. And then, follow that up by reading books and watching other movies. Take in what has been done. I find my greatest inspiration, as I said, is from the novel, because I feel like I’ll never do it better or as good as Henry James. I’m always trying to figure out what was working and how can I raise the bar higher? For me, right now, that’s about trying to be very, very honest with my storytelling and not avoid drama, which I think in some ways I did before. So that’s a long-winded story, but I take the world in and don’t close the windows.