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Landlord Blues: Ira Sachs on Little Men

Ira Sachs (Photo by Henny Garfunkel)

There are little men, and then there are big forces — economic tides, societal shifts, structural change. The beautiful strength of Ira Sachs’s recent work — his mid-career surge after the five-year gap that followed his larger-budget, mini-major film, Married Life — is that Sachs’s characters are such complicated, soulful men and women clearly impacted (but not defined) by the larger issues swirling around them. In his lightly autobiographical 2012 film Keep the Lights On, Sachs essayed the romantic life of a documentary filmmaker in a relationship with a drug-addicted lawyer, set against the backdrop of turn-of-the-millennium New York gay life. Social and economic change then created the inciting incident in Sachs’s follow-up, Love is Strange, in which the Marriage Equality Act and Manhattan real estate issues conspired to drastically challenge the personal third acts of a long-together gay couple.

Real estate is again at the center in Sachs’s new Little Men, which premiered at Sundance and is out this summer from Magnolia Pictures. It’s a movie about adolescence, friendship and artistic consciousness seen from two generational vantage points. At the center of the movie are two 13-year-old boys, the quiet and sensitive Jake (Theo Taplitz) and street-smart, uber-confident Tony (Michael Barbieri). Jake’s father, a struggling theater actor (Greg Kinnear), has just inherited the long-in-the-family Brooklyn building in which they live and where Tony’s mother, a Chilean dressmaker (Paulina Garcia), has had her ground-floor storefront for years. Relying mostly on income from Jake’s therapist mother (Jennifer Ehle), Tony’s family is still, despite the ancestral home, cash-strapped and out-of-step with the city’s escalating incomes. But when Jake’s parents and aunt decide to up the dressmaker’s rent to market levels, they threaten the deep friendship between the two boys, who respond with vows of parental silence.

If the above paragraph makes Little Men seem overly plotty, that’s— as always, with Sachs — not the case. Little Men is an intimate film deeply attuned to the rhythms of city life, and its focus remains on Jake and Tony at a moment when their bodies, consciousness and relationship to the outside world are all changing. We asked a filmmaking colleague, Rose Troche, to interview Sachs. Over films like Go Fish, Bedrooms and Hallways and The Safety of Objects, Troche has shared with Sachs a deep examination of what it means to be a personal, independent filmmaker in a constantly changing landscape. We start mid-conversation, as Sachs considers the economic place of the films he’s making today. — Scott Macaulay

The three New York films are a triptych, but really Love is Strange and Little Men feel very strongly like a diptych. I think it’s because New York is like a villain in these movies, in a way. I also think that, for me, Keep the Lights On was a kind of bridge film, in terms of where I am personally in my own life. It was a film about my 20s and 30s, and it was made in an era that I feel like Little Men and Love is Strange are very much a part of — my life at the present, if that makes sense? There’s a lack of internal torture in these two films that I feel like all my other films were very much about. So, in a way, you could say the stage began with Love is Strange.

I really love the idea of occupying a city, inhabiting it and creating these pieces out of it. Particularly being an independent filmmaker who lives in New York City. What do you think is particular about that relationship? It’s like you have these parallel lives that are going on. There’s a professional life, there’s a family life, there’s a relationship life and there’s a life as part of a neighborhood and a community. There are all these different levels of story that I’m engaged in and that are all very real, each in their own very unique way. Somehow my filmmaking allows me to speak about all of those different sort of levels very organically, and to speak more broadly about what life is like in New York City today.

I love that, because I feel like when I watched Keep the Lights On, I feel like I’m watching what many, many filmmakers do, which is to re-contextualize a part of your life and, after a period of time, try to look at it with an objectivity from a different lens. What people have said is that film’s a confessional, and for me, it was after the confession, in some ways. I was telling a story that in the past, I could not tell, but at the same time, I had already kind of gotten to the point where that was very comfortable for me. The drama is really the filmmaking more than the emotions, in some ways. The emotions are ones that you have already begun to understand and live through. On the other hand, for me, the pressure of making a film is harder and harder as I get older. When I was younger, my life felt full of pressure. The filmmaking was just like the rest of my everyday life in some ways. And now, I feel like there’s a burden of responsibility that I feel very specifically around commerce and capitalism as a filmmaker. But people always tell me not to worry about that, that’s not your responsibility.

I’m not certain that’s true. It very much feels like it is. Ultimately, my films are about intimacy and relationships and family, but they’re also about money and the ways in which money defines character. I think Little Men is very directly trying to shine a light on how we feel we would make certain decisions abstractly, but when it comes down to our own day-to-day survival, we choose to act in very different ways. For me, part of the filmmaker’s job is to understand that decision. So much of it became clear in the editing process, in what I call the third film, because I think you write one film, you shoot another film, and then you edit the third and final film. The kind of no exit feeling that I think ultimately is a part of Little Men was really found in the last stages of editing, where anything that wasn’t crucial needed to be pared away. I think of the film very much as a modernist work on some level, meaning I wanted it to be strong, but unembellished.

You chose not to show the dissolution and saddest part of the film on film. Was that there? Was that an evolution that occurred in the three-part making of the film? Yes and no, in the sense that the end of the film was definitely something that could’ve gone in different directions. In a way, [co-writer] Mauricio [Zacharias] and I wrote an ending that was very much a Hollywood ending. I was highly influenced by this film called The World of Henry Orient by George Roy Hill, about two girls who fall in love with Peter Sellers. It’s a very New York film, and at the end everything gets beautifully resolved in a way that’s kind of uplifting. I wanted to do that. What I found in the course of shooting and then editing the end of the story is that it felt totally false to do that to this story and these characters, that I couldn’t externally resolve what are fundamental real problems in the lives of these people. So it was kind of like “Goddamn it, I can’t give the audience what they want.” And yet, what I’ve found is that the ending, people relate to in a very personal way that hopefully is what they want.

You’re making films in a more prolific fashion. There was the five-year gap, and then you’ve just been at it. With the wide release of Love is Strange, did you feel like, “Okay, now I need to deliver something?” And then your indie heart just kind of couldn’t do it? Sometimes I think that the story of Little Men is — and maybe this is just how I relate to it personally — that the space that’s being fought over, in this case a Brooklyn storefront, could very well be the space that we fight over every day as independent personal filmmakers. And really, what we’re fighting against is the lack of economic reason to make the movies we make. Capitalism says they don’t work. So, then the question is, what is the value of the film, if it’s not totally part and parcel with capitalistic success? And that’s really what the film is about.

If I was going to make this film to be commercially successful or to ensure that that is more likely to be the case, then I wouldn’t have made a film about two 12-year-old boys. I wouldn’t have made a film about a Chilean woman in New York. I wouldn’t have made a film about a 55-year-old father. I would’ve made a film about 26-year-old white people, or American people, something that would hit the four quadrants in a different way. I don’t think I’d be successful in that world, if that makes sense.

I’m really fascinated by the working relationship that you have with Mauricio, as a co-writer. It seems to function very well from the outside. I think that part of it is that it’s a good relationship, in the way that a love relationship might be. It’s not romantic in that nature, but because we share so many values and similar curiosities, I feel like we have a lot of ease floating between the stories that we tell about what’s going on in our lives and the stories we tell as screenwriters, and they’re very fluidly merged. So for example, in Little Men, we came up with an idea to adapt, and in a way, remake two films by Ozu, the Japanese director. One was, I Was Born, But… and the other is called Good Morning, and they’re both films about children who go on strike against their parents.

So we had that idea as a frame, and then as we’re talking over coffee over weeks of time, Mauricio is telling me about his family, who are in a fight to evict a woman who runs a store that they own the property of in Rio. As the days go on and I hear this story, it’s very clear to me that there’s another side, and that it’s an inherently dramatic situation that is very resonant. That’s a good example of how just chatting goes from being subtexts to texts in our writing. We start to pull from that and we say, “Oh, well, what if the kids who are going on strike are the kids of that situation that you’re living through?” I always think that it’s very helpful to collaborate with people who would understand if you tell them you can’t be somewhere because you need to go to your great-aunt’s funeral, and that they understand that. That basic sense of what family is is something that I feel like you either get it or you don’t.

When you first set out, did you know you were making a trilogy? No, not when we started Keep the Lights On. I think we finished Keep the Lights On and it was exciting to make a really gay film in New York, to be honest. Let’s just say, not a queer film, but a gay film. And I think there’s a difference.

There is a difference, yeah. We’re not talking subtext. We’re not talking metaphor. We’re not talking period.

We’re talking straight up gay. Yeah, straight up gay. And I enjoyed that. I think that that led to Love is Strange. But at the same time, Love is Strange, the gay couple is not in the same kind of isolation. It reflects really directly a shift I feel, because I’m not in a tortured relationship that isolated me from other people anymore. So my characters aren’t either, you know?

Yeah, it’s very interesting because I find that, especially in the last two, there’s this external thing that is happening to them and forcing changes. And that’s why I brought up the notion of New York as — Villain doesn’t resonate for me because I feel like these are questions, they’re such age old and universal questions of how do people get along and how do people survive and how do they keep a roof over their head. I always think that’s what Henry James is about, and that’s what Jane Austen is about, and the history of drama. And I think that’s why Chekhov felt [like] a natural kind of inclusion in Little Men, because very few people do it better in terms of finding the universal within the house.

I think I used the word villain because I have such strong feelings about gentrification, but it doesn’t mean that it was any easier for someone who’s middle class to live in New York City. It’s like we’re all being taken along for a ride in terms of being priced out. We’re telling the same story and we’re all telling very, very different stories. I’m standing in the lobby of my Manhattan apartment building having this talk with you. So that’s also part of my story.

That leads me to another question. I love your relationship with the production design of your film. By the very nature of their environment, it’s revealed that that is important to your characters as well. I mean, I know you’re married to an artist and you’re an artist yourself; this young boy is becoming an artist and his father is this actor. He’s immersed in this world of creativity. And even though they’ve just moved into this apartment, there’s just such a level of production design on the walls in the space that they’re occupying. Can you speak to that a little bit? Yeah, and by the way, it’s moving to hear that sort of the way you work is being seen and understood, so thank you for that, because I feel like that’s sometimes what happens in an interview that’s interesting is that you realize some part of you is transmitted. I think it’s actually not so different than the conversation we had just had about Mauricio and what becomes a part of my stories. I really access worlds that I know or can learn a lot about. It was always something for me that the role of Greg Kinnear’s character in the film [was] as a kind of struggling — working, but not making money — actor. I feel like I know 100 people, at least, who came to New York with the dream of being artists and are artists, and yet can’t find the space to sustain that economically. There’s the term “the culture class,” and that’s part of the New York that I think you and I share — people who are really here to make things and the sacrifices and challenges that they have in doing so, particularly living in New York. And I guess someone who’s early 50s and satisfied but unsatisfied, who’s had success and not had success — that just feels very familiar to me.

But I think that sense of dissatisfaction is always there and drives you. And it brings me to this. I’m not trying to build a narrative around you that doesn’t exist, but I’m just thinking about the short doc that you did and feeling a sense of freedom and a potency to that. For me, Last Address was the spark that started the next chapter of my creative life, because I took the reigns back from the industry. I had spent three years working on a film called The Goodbye People. It had every name, indie name, cast member in the book and I couldn’t raise a dollar. It was 2008, ’09 and ’10, at the end of the recession. So the recession obviously had an impact on all of us. And then, I made a $3,000 film at the highest aesthetic level that I was able to. I took it really, really seriously and I thought, “This is how I want to make films again,” to figure out what’s financially possible, not impossible; to be as personal as I can be, to not avoid my role and my place as a gay man in New York City.

It’s like a reset button. And I think it’s for all filmmakers — if you look at your career and The Delta, and then, after 40 Shades of Blue, you go on to do Married Life. And that’s what the narrative was: the budget gets bigger and bigger and you get more and more successful because your budget is bigger and bigger. But it doesn’t necessarily keep you close to you and to your work. I look at Married Life and I look at Little Men — it’s not that you’re lost in Married Life, it’s just that you’re further away. Yeah, I think also, Married Life, which is a film I’m very fond of, but I think it’s really a film about being in hiding. And I think it’s a really painful film, on some level. It’s not a happy film. It’s a film about a lot of people. Is it my darkest film in some ways? I think it is because I think it reveals a series of unhappinesses and a lot of thwarted emotion. So it’s a very fraught film. There’s one thing, which is the film, and then the other thing, which is the economy of the film. And the economy that I’m in right now is very different than when I was making Married Life. After the success of Love is Strange one might imagine, you send that script [for Little Men] out and there’s a number of people who want to make it. I will be happy to say, because I don’t want to be false, nobody wanted to make it.

Right. Again, this 13-year-old narrative. I was trying to make a movie called Xanadu. People are like, “Is this for adults? Is this for children? What is it?” Yeah, also, Greg Kinnear speaks to this. He almost didn’t know what the drama was because the drama is, I think, in the finished film. It’s very clear where the drama is, but it has to be felt. It’s not all on the page. I think I have a pretty traditional sense of drama. I don’t think I’m reinventing drama ever. So I believe that, instinctually, there are chapters. There are reverses. There are stakes. There are arcs. All those things are happening. And I just would rather them not be spoken about. So it was interesting. I was just at the Sundance Directors Lab, and just as a form of conversation, I would say to people that I’ve never talked to an actor about the word motivation. I never talk about subtext. I try to not have things spoken, and yet, the drama is in the scenes and the drama is in the stakes that are there. I think when you try then to work in television, which I am doing, people don’t just want to trust you. They want things to be more explicit. And the subtlety is what gets lost in that clarification.

It’s interesting to talk about the distinction between a gay film and a queer film, and I always feel a level of queerness — or am I confusing sensitivity with queerness? — but something that feels beautifully familiar. And I really saw that in Theo’s character. I did, too. I guess I see gayness without seeing future. I don’t know what this kid’s future is. I don’t know what the character’s future is, per se. And yet, I’m the storyteller and I’m a gay man and I was an artistic kid and I was in the theater and all these sort of places, but that’s more subtext, I guess. My best friend from that period actually just saw the film when we were in Chicago. I have to say that my relationship with him was completely non-sexualized, non-romantic, and yet, extremely close and very intimate. So I think when people speak about the dynamic between these two, I’m projecting my own, in the sense that there wasn’t love lost or desire per se, in my own memories. For someone else who was a personal filmmaker, they might have had a very different story to draw on.

I think it’s much more universal than we think it is, but the sort of lack of clarity about what that love is, when you have a love of a best friend. Tony had that fastness and Jake had a silent strength. That was also to me what they were like as actors. I very quickly thought of one as my Bressonian actor and the other as my Scorsese-ian actor, and I started to use them with that in mind.

And it worked. It works. Jake, you want to be still, and things will be revealed kind of coming out from within. Michael, you want to let loose and encourage improvisation and put into the middle of rooms and say go wild, in terms of the acting scene or something.

The acting scene was just too much. I felt like he was having such fun. I met these kids a year ago and then I got to spend the summer [with them]. In a way, what happens when you make films about kids is, actually, you’re literally documenting what’s happening right there that summer. That’s true with anyone else, but these kids were having the best summer of their lives. They were making a movie in New York. That kind of joy is unique to childhood. It’s something that I feel the camera can really capture beautifully. It’s why 10 of my favorite movies are movies about kids, because it’s so cinematic. It’s going to be lost. It’s going to be gone in a moment. That’s what cinema is good for.

Your process of not rehearsing them, but of instinctively clicking into someone, observing, finding what their strengths are, and then masterfully playing to that — that’s a beautiful thing, because you feel like you know these two boys without making them sort of one dimensional. For me, I think great acting is about listening and responding.

As is great sex. As is great sex, right. As is great directing. I think directing, for me, is about being extremely attentive. There’s a woman who lives in my building who’s a very famous psychoanalyst, and she’s walking around as we’re having this conversation. And I’m thinking that was always the only other job that I could imagine, because it’s about attentiveness and it’s about narrative, also. I think if you could put yourself in that place as a director, you need to be both very still and very active, and you need to surround yourself with great people. And yeah, I don’t know. It’s a state of mind.

Can we just talk about the pace? Coming back to the idea of the trilogy one more time. I know that Ozu is a big influencer of leave the camera there, allow things to unfold. Keep the Lights On, it’s a lot about ellipses. It’s about the movement that comes when you get from one scene to the other without necessarily defining how. So there’s this kind of propulsion that happens. It’s a propelled film, if that might make sense. And I think Love is Strange is sort of purposefully lyrical and that Chopin is the accompaniment is not incidental. So there is this kind of musical quality to that. And I think it’s very much an ensemble film. Little Men, for me, what was very interesting — particularly working with Óscar Durán, my cinematographer on that film — was that we wanted to be both kind of natural and yet also very rigorous with how we shot the film and told the story. And I think for me, it’s a film shot and made in the medium and, in a way, it’s a sequence of portraiture that adds up. For me, maybe Little Men is the most refined of the three works. And in some ways, it was the scariest, because it wouldn’t be finished until it was at its most precise moment. And it needed care. I mean, I keep thinking of it as a modernist work, and I think modernism is very difficult to do well, because there’s no tricks. Just be focused and singular and clear and keep looking.

And lastly, is your collaboration with Mauricio going to continue? It is. We’re working on three projects together.

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